Was Jesus a real person who lived and preached in ancient Judaea?

Was Jesus a real person who lived and preached in ancient Judaea? January 12, 2020

This is a guest post by regular commenter Carstonio. Thanks so much to him for this. Please feel free to submit any guest posts to me as this really helps the blog keep going!

Was Jesus a real person who lived and preached in ancient Judaea? Or was he a creation of the early leaders of the Christian Church? While the question is valid, asking it may inadvertently let fundamentalist Christians set the terms of the debate. Not just on their claim of the Bible being literal history, but also on the fundamentalists’ politicized idea of belief and mythology.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and the book’s adaptation by Starz, show an America where the deities embody modern phenomena like technology and the media. Gods created by far older cultures, whose tales were told orally long before being written down, have become largely forgotten. Gaiman illustrates the human tendency to ascribe mythic significance to the elements around us, whether natural phenomena or our own inventions. The myths that cultures create are about making sense of, and coming to terms with, the things that seem far more powerful than humans. (Reference: https://www.litcharts.com/lit/american-gods/themes/mythology-belief-and-community)

Fundamentalists in Christianity or any other religion refuse to acknowledge or understand that cultures create gods and not the other way around. The Christian ones argue that, if Jesus did exist, then he must have fed the multitudes, or healed the sick, or resurrected Lazarus, or himself rose from the dead. They present only three options for the question of Jesus – lunatic, liar, or Lord. But as Misquoting Jesus author Bart Ehrman put it, that idea ignores a fourth option, which is legend.

An attempt to read the Gospels as literal history makes the mistake of assuming that Jesus said or did all the things attributed to him. The four canonical Gospels, and the non-canonical ones, originated with factions in the early Church and reflect the theological disagreements of the time. But more importantly, they’re no different in concept from the fantastic stories in Greek or Norse mythology, or even the legends of King Arthur. Documents from older cultures often make no distinction between history, legend, and folklore, or when they do the context is missing for modern readers. Like any other ancient documents, the Gospels were intended for a specific audience in a specific era.

The Christians who claim to be biblical literalists read the Bible as myth in the broad sense, just like anyone else. Their myth is the same as conservatism, viewing the world as righteous defenders of civilization best by subhuman barbarians from without and by traitors and weaklings from within. They resonate with the apocalyptic tone of the Gospel of John and Revelation, and the read the xenophobic elements of the Old Testament as fanfiction about their own supposed place in American culture.

Miracles in any ancient account do not deserve to be taken seriously as claims of miracles, as opposed to claims of events that might have had non-miraculous causes. They have elements of just-so stories and of parables, but ultimately they were attempting to communicate a set of values. Modern readers don’t have to believe in the existence of the deities or miracles to decide for themselves the merits or flaws of those values. A story that teaches laudable values doesn’t prove that its deities exist or that its miracles happened, and conversely, a story with repulsive values doesn’t disprove its supernatural elements. While it’s possible that deities actually exist, as depicted in the stories or in totally different forms, that’s a separate matter and it misses the point of the stories.

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