I didn’t think to write a second part of this article, but there is an issue with mythicists in general that really upsets me, and it has to do with their criticism of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity as possible pointers toward Jesus’ historicity.
The argument in general as advocated by Robert Price and Richard Carrier, among others, goes like this (and I hope not to misrepresent their positions):
The arguments from embarrassment and dissimilarity are seriously flawed, because if the Gospel writers were “embarrassed” by the information they were sharing or told something that contradicted their narrative, they would not have included it in the text. Actually, if it was included, it is because it proves a point that the Gospel writer is trying to make.
Here is a fuller description of this rejection. I disagree with this statement, but to illustrate my point, I want to show how it is used, not only in New Testament criticism, but in actual historiographical labor regarding other historical subjects.
Eusebius and an Angry Constantine Not Caring about Christ
It is known and very well established by scholars that Eusebius of Caesarea is not exactly the best reliable source in the universe if you want to know anything about the actual history of Christianity or what happened during the Emperor Constantine’s reign. Recently, Donald Robertson wrote an excellent article on how Eusebius seems to have made up the persecution against Christians supposedly engaged by Marcus Aurelius. The statement agrees fully with what scholars have found about stories of martyrdom in early Christianity, and which have been publicized by Candida Moss’ excellent book, The Myth of Persecution. In his article, Robertson quotes Eusebius himself when he states in one of his writings:
“That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”
Jakob Buckhardt, the nineteenth century historian of Antiquity, is famous for characterizing Eusebius as a compulsive liar, needless to say that for him, the description of Eusebius as “historian” does not fit well, but rather “propagandist”.
Therefore, if you want to read a book such as Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, we should expect more propaganda than and actual systematic objective narrative. For instance, most people think that Constantine’s apparition of the Cross in the heavens as told by that book is historical, and that it was the point where he converted to Christianity. Yet, when we go to the Arch of Constantine, which commemorates his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, there is no sign of Christ anywhere, nor of the Labarum, nor the chi-rho symbol that supposedly he saw with the Labarum, nor do his soldiers appear with it inscribed in their shields. We see evidence, though, of an homage to Sol Invictus. Needless to say that Constantine used Sol Invictus’ symbolism everywhere, from his statue, to coins, to legislation, etc. In fact, no one else knows Eusebius’ account of his conversion (notoriously different from Lactantius), and he says that Constantine told him the story in secret and under oath (!) (see Book 1, ch. 28). Yes we agree that the chi-rho sign was distinctive of Constantine’s reign and we have evidence for it (and the use of the Labarum), but is it clear that it is a Christian symbol? Some scholars dispute it, given that the earliest account of an actual vision apparently as told publicly by Constantine himself, occurred in 310 CE, where the Sol Invictus and the goddess Victory handed him a military standard with the description of a symbol that is suspiciously similar to the chi-rho sign. Of course, nobody was able to ask Constantine about any of the claims of the apparition of the Cross, given that when Eusebius’ book was written, the “sole eye-witness who swore this under oath to him and no one else” was dead.
Yet, not everything that Eusebius wrote about Constantine is a lie. Some of the facts he tells us did happen, perhaps not in the way he portrays it. Besides, there are many aspects where Eusebius seems to be surprisingly honest. For instance, when he reproduces Constantine’s own letters and official documents. How do we know that he didn’t distort them? Mainly because of … the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity. AS in the case of the Gospels, these letters actually served Eusebius to make an immediate point in his narrative, BUT by using this information, he reveals Constantine’s true attitudes towards Christianity that do not serve the author on other grounds.
If Eusebius’ writings are apologetic to the core, then we must ask, what was the purpose of his Life of Constantine? Apparently, from reading the text, and what we know about his exaggerated claims and omission of information, we can infer that Eusebius wanted to show Constantine as a Christian model, following the archetypal path of Biblical figures such as Moses and David. That is what we see page after page of Eusebius accounts. There is no question about it in the realm of scholarly Antiquity. Yet, in order to tell us about the Council of Niscea, and Constantine’s role in it, he has to tell us about Alexander and Arius’ dispute about the nature of Christ: Was Christ a lower divinity in the same nature as the Father, but not God Himself? Or was He as God as God the Father, coeternal and cosubstantial?
For Constantine, this was not a trivial matter, but not because he was bothered subjectively regarding this Christian conviction. He was worried because the dispute was generating a level of conflict that literally was tearing apart his Empire, the one he fought so hard for so many years to unify. Eusebius tells us that when he knew about this dispute, he was deeply saddened by it. In order to find unity among Christians, he wrote a letter calling Arius and Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, to peace. Because the letter itself could not resolve this dispute, Constantine called for a Council to decide this debate once after all. In this sense, the letter served Eusebius’ point, that Constantine cared for the peace and unity of Christians (a real Peacemaker with a capital “P”), especially by calling for a Council that decided what was the Truth (with a capital “T”).
Yet, if we read the letter itself, we can see Constantine’s true attitude towards the whole subject. His motives were political, not doctrinal in any sense. He couldn’t care less about whether Arius or Alexander was right. He wanted a unified Empire. This is transparent in the letter. Here are some observations about it (if you want to read the letter in its entirety, see Book II, chs. 64-72). From the letter we get that Constantine condemns Arius and Alexander, both, for disputing about a subject he describes with these words:
- “… having made a careful inquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention” (ch. 68, my emphasis)
- “I should say, that you [Alexander] asked them something connected with an unprofitable question, then you, Arius, inconsiderately insisted on what ought never to have been conceived at all, or if conceived, should have been buried in profound silence” (ch. 69, my emphasis).
- “For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?” (ibid., my emphasis).
- “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God’s people should be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves. I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that such should be the case.” (ch. 71, my emphasis)
- “But let us still more thoughtfully and with closer attention examine what I have said, and see whether it be right that, on the ground of some trifling and foolish verbal difference between ourselves, brethren should assume towards each other the attitude of enemies, and the august meeting of the Synod be rent by profane disunion, because of you who wrangle together on points so trivial and altogether unessential? This is vulgar, and rather characteristic of childish ignorance, than consistent with the wisdom of priests and men of sense.” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “And this I say without in any way desiring to force you to entire unity of judgment in regard to this truly idle question, whatever its real nature may be. For the dignity of your synod may be preserved, and the communion of your whole body maintained unbroken, however wide a difference may exist among you as to unimportant matters” (ibid., my emphasis)
- “For while the people of God, whose fellow-servant I am, are thus divided among themselves by an unreasonable and pernicious spirit of contention, how is it possible that I shall be able to maintain tranquility of mind?” (ch. 72, my emphasis)
And HERE is where the criterion of embarrassment (and also dissimilarity) kicks in!
Does this letter serve Eusebius? Again, yes, it does! Read in its totality, it serves to point out how much of a peacemaker he was towards Christians, and how concerned he was for “true peace” within the one true Catholic Church.
Yet, it also contains elements that do not favor the main thesis of his book! How likely is it, that Eusebius would make up a letter that has so much unflattering things to say about both sides of the discussion (including the “orthodox” side represented by Alexander)? There is next to no chance, since we know that Eusebius is notorious for distorting facts to his brand of Christianity. How likely is it that Eusebius would make Constantine regard the issue as “unimportant”, “a trivial and foolish verbal difference”, “positively evil”, and so on? Minute, almost non-existent. Yet, these elements are there for one reason… and one reason only: because historically, Constantine did write the letter, and because he did not care about Christology. This is the criterion of embarrassment in action! This is why it is useful in the field of history.
We are still left with a question. Why couldn’t he just forge the letter? For one simple reason: that he is still living in a time where Constantine just died, but his advisers, his friends, his militia, his scribes, Arian friends of the Emperor (like Eusebius of Nicomedia), and so on, were still living. He would have been caught with the forgery if that happened.
In general, it is unlikely that Eusebius could have made up material that would be contrary to his intent of presenting Constantine as a devout Christian, and in such “embarrassing” levels. Yet, he still used the letter, because despite of some of its content, it “proves” that Constantine was a Peacemaker.
Is this criterion a sort of the criterion of dissimilarity? Yes. And all of the above shows that these criteria are useful in History as a discipline.
The Criteria of Embarrassment and Dissimilarity in New Testament Scholarship
How does this apply to the New Testament? In our previous post, we saw that Jesus’ baptism was an inconvenient factor for all of the Gospels’ authors. They are not properly speaking “embarrassed” on the whole of the story, in the sense that it deals with how Jesus was actually declared Son of God at the moment of his baptism. As a matter of fact, the whole episode in the Synoptic reads like a prophet anointing a new king (just like Samuel anointed David). This is emphasized apparently in Luke, in whose original text (or at least according to some scholars) the Holy Spirit appears pronouncing the verses of Psalm 2, regarding the king being begotten as the Son of God (Ps. 2:7; Lk. 3:22).
But still, any attentive reader should feel nagged by the premise of John’s baptism: this is a baptism of confession and repentance of sins! That’s why people were being baptized by him. Why did Jesus go there? Why not just begin his ministry separately from John the Baptist. The historical answer is that Jesus began as John’s disciple. In order to eliminate the inconvenience of this undeniable fact, the Gospel writers (specifically Mark’s Gospel) changed the meaning of his baptism: Jesus’ is not a baptism of confession and repentance of sins; in this particular case, it was an “anointing” by a known prophet. Then, according to Mark, Jesus had a vision and knew that he was the Son of God … even though he never said that publicly!
An this fact is another inconvenience. What is the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God? The problem, Mark would say, is that when he was recognized as the Son of God by demons or others, he ordered them to shut up; but his disciples were supposed to know, yet never understood him. There is no debate among scholars that this claim, as absurd as it sounds, is the literary motif of that Gospel. Don’t believe me? Read that Gospel from beginning to end! That’s the whole idea! Even after his resurrection, the women never told the disciples about those news (remember that the Gospel actually ends in Mark 16:8, the rest of the verses were a later addition).
Why? Again, Mark wanted to explain why Jesus historically never appeared to have called himself Son of God in public, and wanted to explain away why the Messiah, who knew since his baptism that He was the Son of God, never revealed it publicly: because he either shut people up about it, or he was misunderstood by his disciples.
If we go to the other synoptic Gospels, we find another inconvenience for both of their authors. This time, their common source, the Q text, tells us about John’s reaction when he heard the news about Jesus’ activity. According to Q (or at least what it supposedly should have said, Q is a hypothetical document):
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Lk. 7:18-23; Mt. 11:2-6).
Of course, this served both Matthew and Luke regarding their immediate point: to confirm the authors’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the miracles that he carried out proved without a doubt that he was “the one who is to come”. Yet, now a question nags: “But, wait a second! According to Matthew, John actually did know that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 3:14)! And in Luke, even when John didn’t baptize Jesus, he was a close relative of his and should have known all of the fantastic stuff that happened to Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, and his mother Elisabeth, and he must have known that Jesus was the Messiah, right? (Lk. 1-2)” If you follow both Gospels, John should have known better than to ask that inconvenient question, and yet, historically speaking, John seems not to have known that Jesus was “the one to come”. Still with that problematic issue, both Gospel writers used it to prove their immediate point, that Jesus’ activity did show that he was the Messiah, and THAT was included in Jesus’ reply to John. This is the reason why scholars think that most probably this event of John sending his disciples to ask Jesus actually took place.
Now, why didn’t any of the Gospel writers follow the path of the Gospel of John, of omitting (or even denying) that Jesus was baptized? Very simple! Because Mark’s account, which is the basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s, apparently collected early traditions among Christians. Besides, through critical scholarly analyses, we know that during the first century, John the Baptist also had disciples, and his sect gradually became confrontational with Christians. This can be shown in John’s Gospel, when (apparently responding to this sect) states clearly that John was not the Light, but he was a “witness to the Light” (John 1:6-8). Also, it was widely known at the time, that the custom of Baptism in Christianity had its roots from John’s activity as a baptizer. The author of the Gospel of John is far enough from that historical moment in order to omit (or deny?) that Jesus was ever baptized by John. Not so in the case of the earlier Gospels, whose writing took place when a wide variety of people, including Christians, did know that Jesus was baptized by John. Besides, the Gospels reflect an admiration for John that was shared by all Christians … they just think that Jesus was greater than John.
Note: If you want to read how can scholars have an idea of the disputes between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist, read Raymond Brown’s book, The Community of the Beloved Disciple.
So, they didn’t change the fact of the event initially, but rather changed the meaning of the event. This was at the beginning, but as I showed in my previous post, at least from a literary point of view, the first account of Jesus’ baptism shows him being baptized by John; in the second account (Matthews’) we see a bit of an effort of the Gospel writer to explain this fact; then in the third account (Luke’s) Jesus’ baptism is dissociated from John; until finally (in John’s Gospel0, Jesus was not baptized by John, nor baptized at all.
Everything in all four Gospels points at some level of “embarrassment” regarding these issues. The only explanation for why they initially had to tell the story, is because historically Jesus was baptized by John, and everyone knew that. If THAT is the case, then Jesus is not a fictional or mythical character of a story, and most probably (to the point of almost absolute certainty) he truly existed.
The Limits of the Criterion of Embarrassment
Is this criterion infallible? Absolutely not. There are cases where it fails, and mythicists are right that it can fail often. Yet they forget some important factors:
- To discard this criterion because it fails sometimes does not mean that it will fail all of the time. We can see in this article at least four cases where it clearly shows that it does help us obtain some historical information: 1. that Jesus was baptized, 2. that he never claimed to be the Son of God, 3.that John didn’t know about Jesus being “the one to come”, and 4. that Constantine wrote a very unflattering letter to Christians and didn’t care about Christology.
- They give the public the impression that these limits are not being discussed among New Testament scholars.
Regarding this second point, this is simply untrue. The limits of the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity are widely discussed by scholars in the field and are very well known (see here, here, here and here). However, we have several good news:
- Although these criteria have a subjective degree that it cannot be denied, their discussion with scholars who hold very different points of view on the matter help refine their methodological use, given that they cannot be mechanically applied to everything (e.g. to Jesus’ cry of Psalm 22 on the Cross).
- These discussions also help combining these criteria with several others (criteria of coherence, consistency, social and cultural context, literary style and message, etc.)
- Mythicists often complain against these criteria saying that many ancient writings contradict themselves. Yet, what they miss is that often these contradictions are examined by critical scholars and historians in order to explain them. When it is a appropriate, guess which two criteria (among many others) do they have in mind when they examine them?
In all this discussion, let’s remember that not only the NT reconstruction of the “historical Jesus”, but also all of the History is this incredibly difficult process of arming a coherent jigsaw puzzle that takes the bits and pieces left to us from the past (documents, archaeological discoveries, etc.) and reconstruct the past into the best picture we are able to. This is the reason why people often we see historians “revising” history. This is not because there was an original infallible picture of what happened in the past, and then those “damned liberal” historians want to distort it … History is rather an ongoing process of refining its methods, reevaluating the evidence, and refining their historical theories using criteria (all of themfallible) to formulate the best theoretical picture we have of what actually happened in the past.
Like the natural sciences, this happens frequently. Unlike the natural sciences, this is not an exact hard discipline like Physics. Finding an accurate picture of the past is a lot harder and includes a lot of things that Physics doesn’t have to deal with: for example, cognitive science, sociology, economics, political science, and so on.
So, if anything, we have shown once again the validity of the arguments of embarrassment and dissimilarity, and saw how they point at the fact of an actual historical Jesus.
Like ghosts that constantly come back to haunt the public’s intellect, so does mythicism show up its infamous presence again and again, especially during the Christmas season and Lent. There are two camps in this realm, one which is made up of non-experts who have absolutely no authority in the area, and will claim that Jesus’ life is crafted after Horus, who was crucified died and resurrected, as well as Krishna, Mithra, Buddha, and so on. Of course, any historian with the most basic knowledge of Antiquity can dismiss all of these claims as totally untrue.
Yet, there is another sector of mythicism that is more respectable and is being held by authoritative historians and scholars, such as is the well known cases of Robert Price and Richard Carrier. Of the two of them, Price is the only one with a Ph.D. in New Testament scholarship, Carrier is an expert in general Antiquity, not Bible scholarship. This doesn’t mean that these are the only two academics who hold a mythicist view. For instance, there is also Raphael Lataster, who wrote an article for the Washington Post about two years ago regarding his view that Jesus didn’t exist. I will use this article to show why this academic mythicist view is simply wrong. Of course, I cannot respond to all of their claims, but I will give enough in this post to show why this is an extremely minor view held by academics, and why the overwhelming majority of specialists in the area reject it.
Before I begin, I want to accept that Lataster’s is an article with a limited space to argue his position with all due nuance. I will try my best not to take him out of context. I’m also aware that he is unable to respond to all of the objections presented against this mythicist view.
Oh! And another thing. I am not a Bible scholar with a degree in the field. This means that you should take my assertions with care, and talk to an actual professional Bible scholar about the issue. All I can promise you here is that my statements will abide as best as possible by the best Bible scholarship that I know.
What I Agree with Mythicists
Surprisingly enough, there are areas where, from a historical standpoint I can agree with mythicists. From a methodological naturalistic point of view assumed by history, it is very unlikely that there was a virgin birth, or that someone ascended “to the heavens” defying the laws of gravity. Most probably there were no miraculous healings in the strictest sense of the word, and most probably Lazarus didn’t rise from the dead. So, from a historiographical standpoint, I agree that there was no Jesus who was miraculously conceived, carried out miracles, died, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, etc. A lot of this is a product of fantasy.
I also agree with one very important point brought constantly by mythicists. There is no smoking gun that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus existed. If you want to argue that there is no archaeological discovery of the first century that talks about Jesus, or that there is no text written by him, or that the information that we have from them is contradictory, written decades, even centuries later, etc., I would be forced to agree.
Yet, as historians of Antiquity know very well, if these variables were the sole determinants of the existence of an ancient person, we would have to wipe out almost all of the information that we have gathered from Antiquity, and stay with a minutia of what we do have evidence for. We would have to erase from history, Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Apolonius of Tiana, Spartacus, etc. Your 20 volumes of an encyclopedia of history would be reduced to a 20 pages pamphlet (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point), because besides claims made by documents, we have next to no evidence of a lot of claims that they make. History is not an exact science like Physics, and it can only suppose provisionally what documents can tell us after they have been rigorously qualified by the available evidence using the best methods that historians have available.
One of the things that most people don’t know, and mythicist continually exploit this ignorance, is that virtually all ancient documents do have agendas. None of them are neutral. Do you think that Julius Caesar was “100% objective” regarding his recount of his conquest of Gaul? No, many of his claims have been found to be false! Do you think that Josephus was “100% objective” with no agendas tied to the Roman Empire? That Aristotle was “100% objective”, especially with his tendency to demean other philosophers to make himself look greater? That Herodotus was “100% objective”? NO! None of these authors were “agenda-free” historians or thinkers! If this is the case … what does it mean when mythicist claim that you should never believe ANY information provided by Paul’s letters or the Gospels, because they have agendas?! If every historian behaved this way, we would know next to nothing about history. Of course, an “agenda” is something to keep in mind, but it does not discredit historical claims automatically.
Whether there was a historical Jesus beneath this fiction, I agree with the overwhelming consensus among scholars of Antiquity and the New Testament: YES! Most probably a historical Jesus did indeed exist in the past.
Mythicists often argue that the reason why such consensus exists is because most of them are believers. Yet, this is overly simplistic, given that a lot of the most renowned scholars had trouble with their respective churches for holding such controversial use. The classic case of Rudolf Bultmann should be recalled, since he held in the nineteenth century that most of what the Gospel say didn’t happen. The Catholic priest, Raymond Brown, who has become a must-read for every New Testament scholar today, had huge problems with the Vatican due to inconvenient scholarship regarding his scholarly stance on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as well as controversial statements regarding John’s Gospel (see his Community of the Beloved Disciple as an example). The priest John Meier has often differed scholarly from the dogmatic positions of Roman Catholicism (e.g., he holds from a scholarly view that Jesus had brothers and sisters who were the sons of Joseph and Mary, against the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary).
Yet, briefly, for the sake of argument, let’s take believers out of the equation. The vast majority of non-believers in the field also hold that Jesus did indeed exist. In this case, mythicists argue that the problem is that the minds of these scholars have been manipulated and conditioned (they were brainwashed?) by previous Christian scholars. Yet, this claim has no more credibility than the allegation from the political Right-Wing that the anthropogenic view of climate change is held by most scientists as part of a conspiracy by the U.N. and Al Gore to take away the sovereignty of the countries of the world and steer them towards socialism; or the political Left claims that most scientists favor GMOs because they have been bought by Monsanto. It basically supposes that Bible scholars who agree with Jesus’ existence have no actual agency of their own, despite the fact that virtually all of them have studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Coptic, have had historiographical education and instruction, and more often than not they learn to defy convention.
So, it is not surprising what Lataster says in his article:
Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?
And yet, of all of these listed above, Ehrman’s views corresponds better to the consensus, and most scholars reject Crossan and Eisenman’s views, even though these are still in debate. This is an idea defended by the some of the most hard core scholars such as John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Lüdemann, Antonio Piñero, among others. The reason why scholars gravitate towards the view that Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet is due to the whole primitive Christian movement was apocalypticist (as we shall see), and this can be inferred from Paul’s authentic letters as well from the Synoptic Gospels (the most primitive documents on Jesus we have). Yet, Jesus did not carry out any revolution nor was he thinking about an armed revolt. The most common view today is that Jesus was awaiting the Son of Man, who would dispense justice and place him as king of Israel with all twelve tribes ruled by the twelve Apostles (Mt. 19:28). Eisenman’s effort to present this “revolutionary Jesus” is based solely on his reading of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls which he holds some are Christian documents (especially the Habakkuk pesher; carbon-14 put that matter to rest for good, as well as analyses made by the vast majority of experts in these ancient documents). Also his exotic views on James and Paul are not embraced by almost anyone in the field. Regarding Jesus as a sage, scholars have realized that Jesus’ wise views can only be understood within an apocalypticist context and framework, so, again, it is more reasonable to suppose that he was an apocalypticist prophet.
So, the situation is much less “embarrassing” than Lataster wants us to believe. Pointing out the discrepancy among three scholars hardly constitutes a case against Jesus’ existence.
The Early Sources
Lataster tells us:
The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.
This is a non-sequitur. Even if the Gospel authors fail to name themselves, that by itself does not mean that they are not using earlier sources and traditions. Quite the opposite, all of the analysis made by scholars in the twentieth century have identified in the four Gospels many early sources that form the basis of their writings.
Also the fact that they want to promote Christianity doesn’t mean either that Jesus didn’t exist, or that the traditions lack any validity. At best, this argument is a red-herring, and tells us nothing about Jesus’ historicity or lack of it. Julius Caesar was heavily promoted by a lot of the literature of his time, including his own. They all present, strictly speaking, a fictional Caesar reconstructed as a form of propaganda in his favor. Does that mean that he didn’t exist? Through Virgil, we learn that Caesar Augustus is divine because he was a descendant of the hero Aeneas, who had Venus as his mother. Does that mean that Augustus didn’t exist? A divinized Jesus is nothing strange in Antiquity, and follows the tendency of turning eminent historical people in his time to become divine. Bart Ehrman wrote an excellent book about this subject.
Even though we have no smoking gun-proof of Jesus’s existence, the question historians ask is where does the evidence tends to point at? Towards his existence or non-existence?
Criteria for Historicity
This is perhaps the weakest argument from mythicists. The criteria of embarrassment, multiple attestation, and others are not perfect, yet they are not exactly useless either. It is overly simplistic to see one case where these don’t work, and then throw them to the waste basket. Each of these criteria has its own limitations, sometimes they need to be combined in order to work, in other cases they are not enough to decide whether a passage reflects history or not.
Yet, they are important and still extremely useful. Lataster discusses the three. I don’t have time to discuss all of them, but I will respond to this one to show how short-sighted are his (and other mythicists’) views on this subject. He says:
The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.
And yet, anyone who has taken into consideration literary analysis of the Gospels and letters in the New Testament, can identify pretty accurately, regardless the anonymity of the authors, what he thinks, what he believes, what his public is, what is the literary message of the writing, and so on. Whoever establishes this as a problem simply does not know how to read a text. From the context itself we can know what the author is embarrassed about. I can use lots of examples, but for the sake of argument, I’ll use one particular case: Jesus’ baptism. All I require my reader to do is to actually read the passages I’m going to discuss in their New Testament (Don’t take my word for it! Read them yourselves!)
We know today (and few academics challenge this view) that the Gospels were written between 68 and 100 CE in this order: Mark (68-70 CE), Matthew (80-90 CE), Luke (80-90 CE), John (90-100 CE). This is provisionally accepted by virtually all Bible scholars. So, regarding Jesus’ baptism, we see a gradual effort to distance him from John the Baptist’s ministry, and at the end negate the event of his baptism.
Let’s look at the passages carefully:
- Mark 1:1-15 – Let’s note that this is our earliest Gospel, and says nothing about Jesus’ miraculous birth, nor early life in either Bethlehem or Nazareth. It limits the information to the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth, and that’s it! But that’s not the actual beginning of the story. It begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, and establishes the reason why he was baptizing. He was inviting people to confess their sins and submerge them in water as a sign of being cleansed of the dirt of sin. It is a sign of conversion from a sinful life (Mark 1:1-4). Then Jesus appears, gets baptized, and sees the heavens open up with the Holy Spirit declaring him Son of God (Mark 1:11). After that, we are told that Jesus spent time in the desert, and only began his ministry after John was arrested (Mark 1:14). The whole episode feels rushed: Why did Jesus baptize? We are never told. Did Jesus become the Son of God after “repenting from his sins” or did he do it for any other reason? We are never told. Why did he spend time in the desert? We are not told. Why did he begin his ministry after John’s arrest? We are never told. It is as if the Gospel writer wanted to skip all of this information related to John the Baptist to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
- Matthew 3:1-16 – This story assumes the framework established by Mark, but apparently includes material that presumably comes from the text that scholars call Q. Yet, there is another difference between Mark’s and Matthew’s account: John stops Jesus briefly to ask him why is he going to be baptized, if John himself should be baptized by Jesus. After that, Jesus gives John a non-answer: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) That’s it! Again, no explanation whatsoever. It is as if the author of this Gospel was trying to explain away the reason why Jesus was baptized by John. Unfortunately, Jesus’ answer doesn’t explain anything, except to say that it is God’s will.
- Luke 3:1-22 – The story presented here is more curious than the preceding ones. Here, we find the same Markan framework, it includes Q material, plus more statements from John the Baptist. Yet, something curious happens. Question to you: In this Gospel, is Jesus baptized by John? Pay attention to the text! In vv. 19-20, we find that John was arrested and imprisoned. THEN, Jesus appears baptized! (vv. 21-22) What?! Who baptized Jesus? Was it John the Baptist before being arrested? We don’t know. The text says that he was already baptized and that when he was praying, he saw the Holy Spirit descend declaring him Son of God.
- John 1:19-34 – Of all of the Gospels, this one is the most interesting! Why? Well, I’m going to ask you a question: “Was Jesus baptized (by John or ANYONE)?” Feel free to roam around the passage or the whole Gospel. Your answer is negative. There is NO story at all about Jesus being baptized! And as specialists of John’s Gospel will tell you, usually when a text is notoriously silent when it should not be, usually that’s the author negating the event. (For example: Jesus goes through no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and totally refuses to ask God to avoid his suffering. John 12:27; 18:1-12). As a matter of fact, in the Gospel of John’s version the story of John the Baptist, it is not Jesus, but John who sees the Holy Spirit revealing Jesus as the Son of God. It is as if, Jesus already knew he was the Son of God anyway. Why need the baptism? (John 1:33-34)
So here’s the scenario. Mark is extremely brief about the John the Baptist’s activities and tells us nothing about why Jesus went to be baptized (in the context where baptism clearly implies repentance from sin). In Matthew, there is an “attempt to explain” how the sinless and righteous Jesus needed to be baptized by John, although it doesn’t give us much to go on. In Luke, the author purposely dissociates Jesus’ baptism from John’s activities; it is as if Jesus’ baptism is different from the rest of the baptized. Finally, the Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written in the first century, completely denies that Jesus was baptized by John.
That gives us a pattern, which can only be explained by the criterion of embarrassment. No historian today doubts the historicity of John the Baptist, since Josephus gives us clear testimony that he existed and tells us about his activities in many ways that are clearly not based on the Gospels (which means that the story was not created or interpolated by Christian hands). The Synoptics show John as being an apocalypticist typical of the era, calling for conversion, for the one to come (the Son of Man?) is close.
What explains these New Testament passages? Why is there a pattern towards a gradual dissociation of Jesus from John? The reason is historically simple. Here it is:
Historically, Jesus went to John to repent from his sins to confess them and be baptized. He became John’s disciple. We don’t know if historically he went through the desert. What is clear from Mark (our earliest Gospel) is that once John was arrested, Jesus decided to begin his ministry by preaching an apocalypticist message (Mark 1:14-15), which basically said that the time for God’s Kingdom was very close and that the Son of Man was going to appear soon to judge the living and the dead, that the Messiah was going to rule this Kingdom. It is important to note that when John the Baptist heard about Jesus’ deeds in jail, he was particularly skeptical about it, another embarrassing fact revealed by the Gospels and based on Q (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-19).
After Jesus died and his disciples began to proclaim his resurrection and that he was the Son of God, they had a problem! They were saying that the Messiah and Son of God … was baptized by John!!! He was baptized because he repented, because he wanted to be John’s disciple. That seems embarrassing! Jesus, not John, was the Messiah. So our earliest Gospel only dwells just a bit on the story, and apologetically implies that Jesus was chosen Son of God after he was cleansed of his sins. Matthew went a bit further, and implied that Jesus was already sinless and righteous, but because “God wills it”, he chose to be baptized by John. Luke went further still and dissociated Jesus’ baptism from John’s. And John’s Gospel, the last of the Gospels, represents the culmination of all of this process: John did not baptize Jesus.
Now, we have two ways of looking at this: either Jesus existed and what is stated above is true, or Jesus did not exist, so, we are left wondering why the earliest portrayal of Jesus includes a story that reflects a notorious embarrassment for all four Gospels, If Jesus existed, the explanation is pretty simple: Jesus’ baptism was an undeniable fact known to everyone in the movement, including to followers of John the Baptist. Each of the authors had to explain or negate in some way what actually happened. This information was very inconvenient for Christians.
So, if Jesus existing gives us the simplest and most plausible explanation for these attitudes regarding Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, (voilà!) the criterion of embarrassment pointed out an actual historical event that apparently did take place: Jesus’ baptism.
Lataster’s view that this story was included in the Gospel because it was “convenient” for the authors or their churches does not even begin to make sense of the data we have just discussed. You will really have to do mental gymnastics in order to “save the mythicist theory” to then explain these attitudes reflected in the Gospels.
Paul’s Jesus: The “Heavenly Christ Crucified by Spirits”?
One of the unresolved issues in New Testament scholarship is the attitude of indifference by Paul of Tarsus regarding the life and deeds of Jesus. I provide my reasons for this in my book Pablo el Emisario, although I don’t claim to have hit the jackpot regarding this matter: basically that his letters were not gospels or expositors of Jesus’ biography, but arguments to address very specific problems of the Christian communities in gentility. Yet, even when I accept that this is not wholly satisfactory, it would be misleading to then to take this factor and pretend that for Paul Jesus was a celestial being with no past presence on Earth, or that the crucifixion took place “in the heavens” (sublunar realm to be more exact) and was “carried out by demons”.
Quite the opposite, Paul does remind us about Jesus’ humanity. He was actually born from a woman under the dominion of the Torah, the Law (Galatians 4:4). According to Paul, where did the Torah rule? In the sublunar regions of the heavens? No! It ruled right here on Earth, particularly on the Jewish people. In other words, Jesus was born a Jew according to the flesh (that is, in a physical body), an idea he states clearly in his letters (Rom. 9:1-5). From this theological framework, we can understand perfectly Paul’s view on the soteriological dimension of Jesus’ crucifixion. Basically, Jesus was ruled under the Torah and was crucified, making himself damnable under the Torah — just like all gentiles are—, so that Jesus would assume the sins of the gentiles, and finally defeat death with his resurrection (Gal. 3:13-14; 1 Cor. 5:20-21; Rom. 5:20-21; 6:1-14). In other words, contrary to what Lataster and other mythicist claim, Paul did believe that Jesus existed as a historical and physical Jew born of a woman who was actually crucified on Earth. His theology would be incomprehensible if he believed otherwise.
He also states very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus had brothers, and one of them was called Jacob, who was the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and whom he met personally (Gal. 1:19; 1 Corinthians 9:5-6). This agrees perfectly with the list of names and references to Jesus’ own brothers and sisters in the Gospels and other writings (Mark 6:3; Jude 1). May I remind you, that in the earliest Gospel, there is no miraculous birth story, and portrays his relationship with his family as less than ideal (they believed that he was out of his mind), not a celestial status by any means, and completely consistent with his apocalypticist views (Mark 3:20-21,31-35; Luke 14:26). Paul didn’t tell us anything miraculous about his birth either, and by the adoption of the Greek word “adelphos“, he did believe that James and Jesus were brothers from the same mother and father.
But what about the passage mentioned by Lataster about Jesus being killed by demons (1 Cor. 2:6-10)? Actually, this issue is debated. Some scholars think that these powers are demons (spiritual powers). Other scholars think they refer to earthly powers (political powers). In my view, they are both. The problem is that he misses one basic fact about Paul … he was also an apocalypticist. Even when you can point out Hellenistic influence in his thinking (since he was formed in a Judeo-Hellenistic environment as most scholars agree), he was nonetheless an apocalypticist, just like all Christians at the time. You can see evidence of this in his genuine letters (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:28; 1 Cor. 7:25-35; 15:1-53). For apocalypticists, there is an interplay between spiritual and earthly powers, all of them are acting simultaneously as forces of good or evil, forces of light and darkness. Those who believe are the sons of light, and those who disbelieve are in darkness. This is exactly what Paul believed (e.g. 1 Thes. 5:5-8; Rom. 13:12-13). Hence, what does 1 Cor. 2:6-10 tell us in this context? Very simple, that the spiritual powers acting in the world (through political and religious forces) led to Jesus’ crucifixion. That they did not know that he was the Messiah and Son of God , so they crucified him.
If we add up all of the passages we have thus considered, one thing is clear: Paul did believe that the crucifixion took place here on Earth, not in the sublunar heavens … period!
About Carrier’s Views about a Gradual Descent from the Celestial Christ an Earthly Jesus
Richard Carrier and two or three other people hold that Jesus was originally conceived in Christianity as being a celestial being (an angel and Logos) to an Earthly Jesus who walked on Earth.
Yet, this is not the case. Carrier’s argument rests on his belief that Paul conceived Christ as a sort of Logos as held by Judeo-Hellenistic philosophies of the time. Only then he gradually started being portrayed as having walked this Earth (the “historization” of Jesus). With the exception of an extremely reduced number of academics, no New Testament scholar buys this for a second.
First, he mentions that for Philo of Alexandria, whose philosophy was written before Paul’s Letters and the Gospels, the Logos was called “Jesus” (“Joshua” to be more precise). This claim has been refuted again and again by experts and knowledgeable non-experts alike, and they never cease to call Carrier’s position a big stretch, because he ignores on purpose the meaning of Philo’s text in order to make it fit his mythicist views.
But let’s go even further. The earliest writings we have of Christianity are Paul’s genuine letters. This is taken by mythicists to mean that Paul’s writings, which according to them present a “celestial Christ” and Logos, are the earliest form of Christology in early Christianity. They forget, for instance, that there are some traditions that Paul quotes in his letter that are even earlier, and whose content Paul didn’t share. For example, in his letter to the Romans, he is writing to a church established apparently by a Palestinian branch of Christianity, probably associated with the Church in Jerusalem. Paul has not visited this Church, but plans to do so after going to Jerusalem. In order to do that, the purpose of this letter is to gain its sympathy and explain his novel theological views about Christ. For this reason, he quotes the following creed:
… the gospel concerning [God’s] Son,
who was descended
according to the flesh
and was declared to be
the Son of God [in power]
by the Spirit of Holiness
by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4)
Due to literary criteria, some scholars have pointed out that this is an ancient creed of Aramaic origin (it contains Aramaisms such as the unusual “Spirit of holiness”, instead of Paul’s usual term “Holy Spirit”) in a poetic style where ideas from some verses match with others. The only element that does not fit the scheme is the term “in power” placed there by Paul in order to make it agree better with his incarnational Christology (Philippians 2:5b-11).
This creed was most probably of Palestinian origin, due to both the Aramaisms and the circumstances of the community Paul is addressing in this letter. Note that according to it Jesus became Son of God, not before his birth, not at the moment of his baptism, but at the time of his resurrection. This is consistent with the primitive belief that we find in our earliest Gospel (Mark) where Jesus refused to call himself Son of God in public, which is “Mark’s” way of explaining away why Jesus never called himself “Son of God” during his ministry (another historical revelation from embarrassment). The creed quoted by Paul is also preserved and repeated in another different way in the book of Acts (Acts 13:32-33).
What do these small creeds mean? Simple, mythicists are purposely ignoring that there are even more primitive traditions in Paul’s writings: ones where Jesus was an earthly man who was to be the Messiah, and only became Son of God after his resurrection. The incarnational Christology held by Paul and others was elaborated later by Judeo-Hellenistic Jews, and which Paul adopted (as the Judeo-Hellenistic Jew that he was). This is not explained by Carrier’s model.
As a matter of fact, for New Testament scholars in general, the tendency is exactly the opposite than pointed out by Carrier:
- The initial Palestinian Christology preached a Jesus who was earthly, died crucified, and became Son of God when he resurrected; then a variety of Christologies branched, such as …
- The adoptionists who believed that Jesus became the Son of God at the moment of his baptism (as we saw in Mark)
- Incarnational which made Jesus Son of God because of the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20b-23; Lc. 1:31-35)
- Or that he was a pre-existent divine creature or angel who incarnated and was Son of God from the beginning (Philippians 2:5b-11)
- Or that Jesus was a pre-existent Divine Wisdom, also God’s prime creature (Colossians 1:15-16).
- Or that he was the divine Logos, sharing oneness in divinity with God (John 1).
If you look at the whole process, the texts where Christ is clearly identified as God’s celestial Wisdom or Logos are later Christologies: Colossians was not written by Paul, and it is dated approximately to 70 to 80 CE. John’s Gospel was written from 90 to 100 CE.
The same can be said about the Gospels: the most “human” Jesus appears in Mark, the earliest Gospel; the most celestial and deified Jesus as the Logos appears in John our latest Gospel.
In short, Carrier has zero evidence that the belief in Jesus began as a divine Logos and ended up historicized. The tendency is the opposite: the belief in Jesus began as a flesh-and-blood historical actual Jesus on Earth who was born from of a woman and died on the cross, who was later divinized in different ways by Christians as time went by.
All of this has been shown again and again by scholars. The mythicists are the ones who refuse to see that the best explanation for all of the documents we have of Christianity is that Jesus existed. In order to save their theory, they need to either distort the original meaning of the documents or ignore clear evidence that place this content in a particular literary context.
I end up with Bart Ehrman’s own statements about mythicism. Please, pay attention to his words.
In our first article in our series, we saw that there are some questions regarding the story of the Eucharist as it has come down to us. We have seen that most probably the original meal that Jesus carried out in the Last Supper was a kiddush, a ceremonial meal that Jesus would have interpreted as being the last one before the definitive establishment of the Kingdom of Yahweh on Earth.
We have seen that Acts of the Apostles and the Didaché talk about this ceremony, where the wine is presented first, and without any reference to an atoning sacrifice or a vicarian death of Jesus. Yet, in this section, I will argue that the author of the Gospel of Luke holds the very same tradition of the kiddush, not the Pauline one. This might seem a bit strange, given that Luke seems to be a fan of Paul. Yet, as I will argue (some time in my life), Luke agrees less with the historical Paul than with his reconstructed version of the eminent Apostle. Yet, note that it makes perfect sense when the celebration of a kiddush by the first Christians and their activities in the Temple agree with Acts‘ version of events. There, we don’t see any vicarian vision of the Eucharist, but only of a ceremony. Both books were written by the same author (we’ll call him “Luke”, although it is most probably not his name).
For such a purpose, I will set aside Antonio Piñero’s analysis for the moment, and embrace the analysis of the Last Supper in Luke made by Bart D. Ehrman in his famous book The Orthodox Corruption of Christianity.
Luke’s Passage and Signs of Interpolation
One of the passages explored by Ehrman in his book is the one on the Last Supper in Luke, where there are elements which he considers have been added by later Christian scribes in order to harmonize the passage with the other versions of the Gospels (Mark’s and Matthew’s). He also thinks that the scribe were holding “anti-Docetic” views, but I will not discuss that conviction in this blog post.
Here is the passage as it has come down to us in our versions of the Gospel of Luke:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body [which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.] But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:14-23).
As we pointed out, it seems as if Jesus presented the cup of wine twice. The passage in brackets and bold is the one under our scrutiny.
Contrary to practically all of the ancient manuscripts that we have, only very few of them appear with the shorter text, i.e. the text without the bracketed section (D a d ff2 i l syh). Ehrman points out that there are some of its aspects that are not Lukan in character: for instance saying “for you”, “remembrance”, or “new covenant”, three terms that only appear here and never elsewhere in Luke or Acts. The reason should be obvious for anyone who is acquainted with both books, and that is that their author does not portray Jesus’ death as an atonement for sins. In fact, he changes Mark’s texts where this theology appears. For Luke, Jesus’ death was a miscarriage of justice, and the death of an innocent who was vindicated at the moment of the resurrection (Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-16; 14:8-12; 7:51-56; 13:26-41). For example, when Jesus dies on the cross, this happens:
Now when a centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).
Luke’s Gospel says:
When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly, this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).
Another example: In Mark, we find the following passage:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).
In Luke we find the following:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one serves… (Luke 22:24-27).
Where is the reference to “giving his life as a ransom”? It is totally absent! Luke omitted the last part of the Markan passage.
In Acts, Luke quotes the Isaiah prophecy of the Suffering Servant, yet he is careful to choose which passages he quotes. For example, in Acts 8, an eunuch is trying to find the meaning of this passage of the Suffering Servant:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth (Is. 53:7-8a; Acts. 8:32-33).
Philip explains that it refers to Jesus. Yet, the author of Acts uses this passage to insist on the fact that Jesus is an innocent victim, and omits any reference to the Suffering Servant as atoning for sins (Is. 53:5,8b,10).
What does all of this mean? That, for all practical purposes Luke refuses to subscribe to the idea of Jesus either an atoning of sins or offering his life for others.
Given this scenario, what is more likely: that he changed all of the passages where Mark alludes to an atoning death of Jesus except this fragment of the text of the Last Supper, or that he also corrected Mark’s version and omitted the presentation of the wine as a new Covenant of Jesus’ blood, and that some other scribe added to the main text? I think that the latter option seems to be most probable.
I think that the case presented by Ehrman is very strong.
Not only that, but I want to argue that Luke (whoever he was) chose to “correct” the Markan text in a very specific way: by making it fit the ceremonial form of the kiddush. He did this by making Jesus bless the wine first and the bread later. As a result, here we have Luke‘s original text:
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body; but see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!”
And this is perfectly consistent with what we find in Acts 2:43-47, where Christians were celebrating a Eucharist that omitted all reference to an atoning or vicarian view.
Why did he adopt the kiddush variant of the Last Supper? My hypothesis: It is most probably because Luke’s church belonged to a tradition that practiced it, much like in the case of the churches that produced the Didaché. This tradition met its dead end when the process of institutionalization ended up adopting Paul’s, Mark‘s and Matthew‘s versions of the Last Supper.
Again, this reinforces the conviction that most probably the original story of the Last Supper was most probably a story of a farewell kiddush ceremony, and that the Gospel writers Mark and Matthew were most probably directly or indirectly influenced by Paul’s version of that event.
Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Recently, I’ve been involved in some debates online regarding Jesus’ existence. One of them was in the Facebook account of LiberalAmerica.org, regarding this particular (bogus) article. I’ve refuted some of these claims before in a previous post written some years before my deconversion from Roman Catholicism, and my opinion on this matter hasn’t changed in the least.
Since, I’ve already refuted the claim, I want to make a more positive approach, that is, to present clear cases where the mythicist views of Jesus clearly fail, and the evidence for Jesus’ existence is positive. I want to begin with one of the known but least discussed stories about Jesus: his baptism.
The Texts We Will Evaluate
There are no first-century texts outside the New Testament about Jesus’ baptism. The Gospel claims are pretty much all we have for now. Before we begin, we must remember the way they were written. The earliest Gospel we have is the Gospel of Mark (ca. 70 C.E.). The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were written later using Mark as a source, but also using another one scholars call Q. Even though Q is a hypothetical document, most scholars consider its existence as highly probable. For many, Q took its final form about the year 60 or 65 C.E. Matthew and Luke were written about 80 to 90 C.E. It is said that these gospels also had some other sources that scholars have called M and L respectively. The last of these first century writings is the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.) What do these Gospels have to say? Let’s have a look (all of our quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version).
The Gospel of Mark
What follows is our earliest account of Jesus’ baptism:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John [the Baptist] in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).
The Gospel of Matthew
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13-17).
The Gospel of Luke
So, with many other exhortations, [John the Baptist] proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from the heaven: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:18-22, I have adopted the rare text as the most probable original, for more on this read Bart D. Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture).
The Gospel of John
The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34).
I hear some of you saying:
Me: “Yep, that’s it!”
—“But doesn’t John tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism?”
—“As I’ll show you, that’s exactly part of the evidence … John does NOT tell us anything about Jesus’ baptism. And THAT fact is a great piece of this puzzle.”
Qualifying the Evidence
Historians in general do not immediately suppose that whatever they read in a document is true. Quite the contrary. As Bart Ehrman has argued in his most recent book, eye-witness testimony is very unreliable. Yet, none of these Gospels come from eye-witnesses, but have received these traditions from earlier sources by word of mouth. Mark was written 40 years after the events, so that means that this took at least 40 years of oral tradition to reach the author of Mark. And THAT is a problem. We must keep this in mind when using this Ancient writing.
Yet, that does not mean that we cannot get some historical facts out of it. For instance, what was the purpose of the Gospel of Mark? Answer: to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. How do we know that this was the purpose? Simple. If you read all of that text you will realize that it has one very basic literary theme: that Jesus was the Messiah, but the people who heard him did not get that he was the Messiah, because Jesus didn’t want it revealed to the public; and that he also got upset with those who were close to him, because they didn’t understand his Messianic role. Regarding the first part of the theme, we can see that Jesus often gets angry when people (and demons) confessed his Messianic role public; he literally tells them to shut up, and, despite the fact that later his fame spread like wild-fire (e.g. Mark 1:23-28,32-34,40-45; 3:10-12; 5:42-43; 8:11-13,22-26, 27-30). It is as if Mark were showing this particular fact about Jesus as “a secret” that he didn’t want to be known.
We could ask, why was there such an insistence on Mark. Think about it! If Mark was written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah, but shows him forbidding everyone to tell this “secret”, then what the text is doing is providing the readers the reason why Jesus never publicly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah! Notice that already the theory of Jesus’ non-existence starts to crumble. Someone may ask,
–“But wait! Didn’t everyone watch the heavens open and the Spirit speak?”
Ummm… no! Read again the texts of Mark and Matthew. According to them only Jesus saw the heavens open up and watch the Spirit descend on him!
So, here is our first historical fact that happened to be very inconvenient to Christians: the historical Jesus never publicly claimed to be the Messiah or Son of God. These were claims made after he died. The Gospel of Mark was written to explain away this problem. If Jesus didn’t exist, then it would be hard to explain why the author of Mark wrote his Gospel as if he actually existed but never publicly claimed to be the Messiah. Why wouldn’t he have written the Gospel in such a way as if he did announce it?!
Yet, there is still another inconvenience in our story: Jesus’ own baptism! Isn’t Jesus’ vision of the Holy Spirit descend and proclaim his Sonship as convenient? Actually, no. If you read the first chapter of Mark in its entirety, you find what the writer had to say about John’s activity as a baptizer:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized to him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:4-5).
Why would Mark or any Christian at the time make up the story that Jesus was baptized if John’s baptism was for the repentance from sins? In their view, would it be acceptable that the Messiah repented from sins? Obviously, there is a problem. How can we explain this from a historical standpoint?
It is clear just from this text that before Jesus’ ministry, he began as John’s disciple who repented from his sins and was baptized (our second historical conclusion). Mark‘s story about Jesus’ vision was apologetic, he wanted to explain away why despite the fact that the “Messiah wasn’t a sinner”, he let himself be baptized. For Mark‘s author, Jesus was not baptized because he was a sinner, but because was going to adopted by God as His Son with this act. Mark wanted to persuade readers why, despite the fact that John’s baptism was about the repentance of sins, Jesus could still be considered the Messiah.
But wait … why didn’t Mark just omit the whole story of Jesus’ baptism in the first-place?! Again, take into consideration that this is the earliest Gospel. This means that most probably some of the eye-witnesses to Jesus’ baptism could be living at the time, and someone like the author of Mark could not deny this simple fact. He needed to address this inconvenient fact when confronted by other people like, let’s say, John the Baptists’ disciples that still persisted at the time, or from other Jews who were acquainted with that same information. After all, Christianity’s custom of baptism clearly derived from John the Baptist’s activity, right?!
From Mark‘s text, we can also see that it omitted any reference to Jesus’ own activity as John’s disciple. As we can also observe, Jesus began his ministry, shortly after John was arrested (our third historical fact, Mark 1:14).
Qualifying Matthew and Luke
The confirmation of the Christian embarrassment regarding Jesus’ baptism doesn’t stop with Mark, but continues with the gospels of Matthew and Luke. We can see that clearly they borrowed their respective stories from Mark. Let’s have a look at Matthew‘s account first.
One of the things that we notice at first glance is that Matthew‘s author adds a small dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus. This exchange is made to address a concern that he attributes to John, but obviously is everyone‘s question when reading about Jesus being baptized, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”. In other words, “Hey! You are the Messiah! You are above me! You are sinless and blameless! If anything, this poor sinner should be baptized by YOU!” The account gives us Jesus’ (non)answer to his question: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Why did Matthew include this awkward eye-brow-raising dialogue? Because, as in Mark’s case, he tried to explain away the reason for Jesus’ baptism: it’s all God’s will, so that Jesus’ sonship will be revealed.
But the embarrassment in Matthew doesn’t stop there! Matthew shares with Luke a story not found in Mark, which is a strong indicator that it comes from Q. After John was arrested, Q tells us this story:
When John heard [about all of these things], he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” … And [Jesus] answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the [skin-diseased] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23; Matt. 11:2-6)
At first, we might be impressed by Jesus’ claim, but the most embarrassing section is the first part of the story. Any attentive reader should stop and say: “Wait a minute! In Matthew‘s story of Jesus’ baptism, John knew perfectly well who Jesus’ was! Now he is asking if he’s the Messiah?! What is going on!” Scholars in general agree that this story contains what is perhaps a core historical event, when John really questioned whether his disciple, Jesus, was “the one who is to come”, the Son of Man or the Messiah. There is no certainty whether Jesus’ reply is historical or not, although it does seem to resemble apocalypticist language very well, as we can attest with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The story itself as a whole served both gospels in order to confirm their views of Jesus as the Messiah, but at the expense of revealing a historical inconvenience: that John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah (our fourth historical fact).
As a matter of fact, Q’s story seems more coherent in Luke. There is no dialogue between John and Jesus in that text, and, most interestingly, there is no case of John baptizing Jesus in that gospel. Jesus was baptized, yes … but after John’s arrest. In other words, Luke is establishing a distance between John’s activities and Jesus’ baptism, so that it no longer looks as if Jesus was baptized because of his repentance of sins, which is what John proclaimed.
Yet, if we look thoroughly at Luke (that rhymed!), how come John never knew that Jesus was the Messiah, if chapters 1 and 2 made them cousins? They should have known each other! Yet, as many scholars have pointed out, it seems that its author’s original project intended to begin his gospel with chapter 3. After finishing his work (whether in that edition or a later one), the same author added chapters 1 and 2. As many scholars have pointed out, these chapters are too fantastic and too inconsistent with historical data to be historically reliable. Luke‘s author’s original intention was to present Jesus’ sonship as God’s adoption at the very moment of Jesus’ baptism. Yet, he went further back, and justified his sonship because he was the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So, in Luke‘s “original project”, apparently he made it as to make John totally oblivious regarding Jesus’ status as the Messiah.
As we have pointed out, there is no story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John. As many scholars know, many times when John omits information that is found in the Synoptic Gospels, it usually is a form of denial. For instance, in all three Synoptic Gospels we find the scene of Jesus’ agony in the garden, either throwing himself at the floor or kneeling, and asking God to keep his future suffering away from him (Mark 14:32-42; Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:40-46). Yet, in John we find no agony at all! On the contrary, the soldiers are the ones who throw themselves to the floor when Jesus reveals his divinity when he says “I am” (John 18:1-11). At one point in the Gospel, Jesus even denies that he is going to ask God to keep the crucifixion away from him (in John it is portrayed as his “moment of glorification”; John 12:27-28).
Notice also that this time, Jesus is not the one who sees the Holy Spirit, but John the Baptist! In other words, John recognizes Jesus as being the Messiah, does not baptize him, and has the vision revealing him to be the Messiah. Being the one to write the Gospel at the very end of the first century C.E. has its advantages … the main one is that despite the gospel writer’s evident conflict with the disciples of John the Baptists, none of them are eye-witnesses of the event … hence none of them can deny the “truth” as John understands it.
All of the evidence thus far screams for Jesus’ historicity as the best explanation for the way these texts have been written. Mythicists really have a very, VERY hard time explaining all of these texts from their standpoint. Some people might say that the story of John the Baptist as a whole is a carbon-copy of Horus’ Anup’s the Baptizer. People who argue this way forget two things:
- The story of Anup baptizing the god Horus is a hoax. Scholars all over the world have recognized it as being a complete fabrication from late 19th or early 20th century so-called “scholars” who wanted to make up evidence to “disprove” Christianity’s “lies and fabrications”. People who keep believing that the Horus’ thing nonsense is true will never know the irony!
- The historicity of John the Baptist is well attested, not only by the Gospels, but also by external sources such as Josephus’ writings, particularly, Antiquities of the Jews. The way he is portrayed in that writing has convinced scholars that this was not a later addition by Christian hands. There is no debate that this is Josephus’ actual story about him.
From all of our analysis we can state the following as the most probable historical theory about Jesus:
- He existed.
- He probably began his apocalypticist journey by being a follower of John the Baptist.
- Jesus was baptized by John, because he believed that he was a sinner, and repented.
- After John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.
- It seems that at no point Jesus proclaimed publicly that he was the Messiah.
- John the Baptist didn’t know that his disciple, Jesus, was the Messiah.
All of this tells us that Christians found Jesus’ baptism by John as being highly embarrassing to the point of us being able to see the efforts of explaining it away, or denying that Jesus was baptized by John, or even that he was not baptized at all! All of this only makes sense if he was actually baptized, which would inevitably mean that Jesus existed!
We will keep exploring more in the series. For now, just be aware that from just this post alone, we have established the unequivocal existence of Jesus, not only as the most probable theory, but as a very strong one.
For these, and many other reasons, scholars in general no longer argue about his existence. It is non-issue!
In my earlier blog, I responded an article written by Simcha Jacobovici regarding his recent discoveries “proving” that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. This is the n-th claim for that, even though there is no evidence to support it.
Of course, my problem is that I am not a New Testament scholar, and amateurish at best. However, as I indicated in my previous blog post, Richard Bauckham (a recognized New Testament scholar) has been responding to Jacobovici’s and Barry Wilson’s claims in their new book The Lost Gospel. I want to share with you the series of responses written by him. I hope you see why Jacobovici and Wilson are misleading the public. Bauckham’s whole writing is called “Assessing The Lost Gospel“, and there are 7 parts of it linked to NT Blog, managed by Mark Goodacre. Thank you Mr. Goodacre for making these available!!!!
- Part 1: The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor – Content and Context
- Part 2: Misinterpreting Ephrem
- Part 3: Misreading Joseph and Aseneth (i)
- Part 4: Responding to Simcha’s Responses
- Part 5: Misreading Joseph and Aseneth (ii)
- Part 6: On Mary Magdalene and Magdala
- Part 7: Conclusion and Pauline Postscript
I hope you enjoy the reading. Again, this is an intellectual elephant stepping on an intellectual ant on this subject. Yet, you can always learn a lot in this process.
Recently, the famous filmmaker Simcha Jocobovici wrote an article pertaining a book he recently co-authored with Prof. Barrie Wilson titled: The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene. I won’t spend too much time talking about the book, because some real Bible scholars have dedicated some articles debunking its claims, needless to say that they point out Jacobovici and Wilson’s utter carelessness regarding their deal with available documents (take for instance renowned scholar Richard Bauckman’s essays debunking Jacobovici’s claims here, here, and here) .
I’ll concentrate my efforts in illustrating why no one should give Jacobovici any credibility whatsoever. I’ll be using his recent article as a means to that end. In fact, his article (as well as the book, TV series and documentaries) shows his incompetence when dealing with issues regarding the Bible.
For example, he states that the evidence for Jesus’ being married to Mary Magdalene before writing his book “has been overwhelming”. What is his evidence? Let’s look at each of them:
1. “This may come as a shock to most people, but the fact is that none of the four Gospels say that Jesus was celibate. The Gospels call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ (Matthew 26:49, Mark 10:51, John 20:16). Rabbis, then as now, are married. If Jesus wasn’t married, someone would have noticed.”
Actually, they did notice! First of all, it is a very popular opinion that during the first century CE, people could only be called “Rabbi” if they were married. Many people may be astonished to know that this rule did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. This rule only existed after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and specifically after the Pharisaic reforms during the last two decades of thee first century CE. This rule began to be enforced during the second century CE. This was after Jesus.
Second, there were plenty of people called “Teachers” during Jesus’ lifetime who were celibate. The clearest examples of this were the Essenes, Jews with a monastic lifestyle who lived in Qumran, and who wrote the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. We have testimony from Josephus and from archaeology itself that they never married.
2. “The greatest promoter of celibacy for Christians was Paul.”
Actually, both Jesus and Paul were promoters of celibacy. In fact, Jesus was anti-family in many important ways. Don’t believe me? Here, let me show you some passages?
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
Then [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” …
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers, and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-21; 31-35)
Apparently, Jesus was implying that you should give up your family to do God’s Will (and also implying that neither his mother nor his brothers were doing it, because they were not backing his mission). Did he oppose to the notion of having a family in principle? The answer is “No”. He was aware that Yahweh considered family important, as the Torah (the Law) dictated. At one point, when a rich man asked to follow him, Jesus asked if he observed the Law, even the commandment “You shall honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:16-22).
Yet, why would Jesus oppose his own family (see that the Gospels never mention “his wife”), and even tell other people to “hate” (a prophetic hyperbole) their own families to do God’s work? The answer lies in the fact that Jesus was an apocalypticist. He thought that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that the full duty of everyone is to prepare for its arrival. There is no time to lose!!! Family, in this sense, is a distraction from an urgent duty. As a matter of fact, Jesus saw celibacy as a valid choice for anyone looking for Yahweh’s Kingdom:
“[Jesus’] disciples said to him, “if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But [Jesus] said unto them, “not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:10-12).
Jacobovici states that the Apostle Paul was a fanatic about celibacy, that “only when it came to sex Paul was more severe than Moses and Jesus put together.” Yet, it was Paul himself who expressed exactly Jesus’ position on this matter very clearly when he wrote to Christian converts in Corinth. Just like Jesus, Paul was an apocalypticist, as was every first century Christian in his time:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:
It is well for a man not to touch a woman.
But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband … To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
To the married I give this command –not I but the Lord— that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife [Paul here is referring to Jesus’ actual words on the matter — Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:2-12].
Now concerning virgins. I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (fragments of 1 Corinthians 7).
Jesus would actually endorse every single suggestion made by Paul in this letter.
3. The whole story of Attis and Cybele. (Read it in Jacobovici’s article, too long to place it here).
The whole point made by Jacobovici regarding Paul thinking that Attis looked very much like Jesus, and the whole story of Attis castrating himself is made bogus by our previous analysis. Regarding celibacy, Paul was within the mainstream of early Christian apocalypticism, even to the point of total and absolute coincidence with Jesus’ own teachings … even to the point that Paul actually quoted Jesus when giving Corinthians advice!
Also note that Paul had a visceral hatred towards Pagan religions and rituals. These are expressed throughout his letters, and he does so in a very Jewish manner –talking about pure and impure, etc.– (e.g. advice not to go to Pagan courts for Pagans are perverts 1 Corinthians 6; or Pagans as being associated with the unjust and all sorts of perversions Romans 1:18-32).
4. If one looks at the Gospels without Attis-colored Pauline glasses, there are many, many hints that Jesus was married. Specifically, after the Crucifixion, the Gospels agree that it was Mary the Magdalene who went early Sunday morning to wash and anoint Jesus’ crucified body (Mark 16:1).
Let’s remember that the Gospels also talk about Mary Magdalene and other women who were always by his side during his ministry (e.g. Joanna the wife of Chuza; Mary, the mother of Jacob and Joses — the latter probable family–; Salome). The reason for trying to prepare Jesus’ body for an appropriate burial was because he was buried in a hurry two days before. These women were not “Jesus’ wives”, but rather Jesus’ economic sponsors and followers, and who were devoted to him during his ministry.
[During Jesus ministry:] Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources (Luke 8:1-3)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Jacob, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him (Mark 16:1)
The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared … Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and the other women with them who told [that Jesus resurrected] to the apostles (Luke 23:55-24:1,10)
So, I think that the context of the reason why Mary Magdalene visited Jesus’ tomb for anointment is perfectly clear, and it has nothing to do with whether she was married with Jesus or not (most probably NOT!)
5. Besides the canonical Gospels, there are the so-called “Gnostic” Gospels. The Gnostics — or “wisdom seekers” — were an early branch of Christianity, whose origins we don’t know. What we do know is that they represent the losers in the Christian orthodoxy game. After the fourth century, the Church burnt Gnostic holy books and the people who believed in them. As a result, until recently, we had almost no Gnostic Gospels to refer to … They all tell the same story — Jesus was married. More than this, for his Gnostic followers, Jesus’ marriage and sexual activity was more important than his death and resurrection. Simply put, they were more interested in his passion in bed than in his “Passion” on the cross.
This is yet another evidence that Jacobovici does not know what he is talking about … He has NOT read ANY of the Gnostic Gospels, and he does not know anything about Ancient Gnosticism. If you read any of the Gnostic Gospels — and I mean ANY of them — you will never find any reference at all to “Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s passion in bed”. This is one of the claims he produced out of his rear.
The Gnostics hated all of bodily pleasures, and I mean ALL of them (including sexual pleasures). This is a constant theme in all Gnostic literature. They embraced and radicalized the Platonic view that everything that is matter and of the flesh is intrinsically evil. As a matter of fact, according to the Gnostics, the one true God did not create the material physical world, He inhabits a place of spiritual perfection called the “pleroma”. The physical world was created by Yaltabaoth, or the Tetragrammaton, an evil god. This god is Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible. He, along with the supervisors (archons) of the world, imprisoned souls in the material body, and kept them as slaves of the world using all sorts of pleasures and desires. Hence, all pleasure is evil. The Gnostics considered themselves to have the light of “knowledge” (gnosis), and that Jesus was one of those pure spirits who incarnated (or did not, depending on the Gnostic sect), and revealed this “knowledge” to special people … such as Mary Magdalene.
(Notice that “gnosis” is a Greek word that means “knowledge”, not “wisdom”. Jacobovici does not know Ancient Greek, making a mistake in his exposition. The Greek word for “wisdom” is “sophia“.)
If you read the two Gnostic Gospels which express a certain closeness between Jesus and Mary Magdelene (the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip), you see that there is no “passion” nor “bed” anywhere. In the case of the Gospel of Mary, you find a Jesus who appears to Mary in a vision (not in a body) and reveals some esoteric teachings regarding the soul, knowledge, and the ignorance created by the material world. Some of the Apostles have an imperfect knowledge of this teaching, which is a reason why Peter objected, and Levi defended her, even when he did not know what this teaching meant. This is all there is! If you don’t believe me, I kindly invite you to read the Gospel of Mary (or what we have of it) for yourself (click here to access it).
What about the Gospel of Philip (access it here)? In this Gnostic Gospels, the Apostles are actually furious that Jesus is kissing Mary more than he is kissing them. Why is everyone kissing each other?! If you think that this is a Romantic action, guess again … it isn’t! For Gnostics, kissing is a sign of “passing gnosis” (passing knowledge). Notice that nothing in the Gospels indicate that he kisses Mary more because she is his wife. Instead, he is giving her a privilege over all of the other Apostles. When the Apostles complain, Jesus says: “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.” … ~ My face of confusion~.
You might say that this Gospel describes Mary as his “companion” (koinonos), yet, contrary to popular opinion, this word just means “companion”, not necessarily wife or sex partner. The range of meanings of “companion”, and the lack of use of the term for “wife”, tells us conclusively that Jesus and Mary were not married.
Last, but not least, I am just assuming (for the sake of the argument) the most extreme and sensationalistic interpretation of a manuscript that is all broken (i.e. that Jesus kissed Mary more than the Apostles, that Jesus kissed Mary in her mouth, etc.) Today, some scholars on this subject agree with that the original text most probably looked like this (the brackets indicates the actual holes in the manuscript we have available and how these scholars fill that gap):
As for the Wisdom who is called ‘the barren’, she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of [the saviour was Mar]y Ma[gda]lene. [Christ loved] M[ary] more than [all] the disci[ples, and used to] kiss her [softly] on her [hand]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
But notice a pattern here! Mary is constantly being given privilege over the Apostles? Why is this? This is not a historical fact, but a widely used literary device. As you can see, the Gnostics saw themselves as those who really, really, really knew what the truth is. What about the rest of the Christians (who beg to differ from them)? They simply have either imperfect knowledge or no knowledge at all. By this literary device, Gnostics are saying: “We received that real knowlege from Mary Magdalene, while the rest of Christendom received ignorance from the Apostles.” This is not an unusual literary device. The author of John’s Gospel (although not Gnostic) used something similar to underscore how the “beloved disciple” was vastly superior in knowledge and closeness to Jesus than Peter, Jesus brethren, or the rest of Jesus’ disciples. We see this literary resource again in the Gospel of Judas, where Jesus confides in Judas and reveals to him why he wants to die: because Jesus hated his own body, regarded as something evil. We also see the “kissing act” in the Second Apocalypse of James, where Jesus kisses Jacob (James) on the lips to give him knowledge.
6. The documentary Last Tomb of Jesus and Jacobovici’s book Jesus Family Tomb.
Besides the fact that all serious Bible scholars (and again, I mean ALL of them) have criticized both the documentary and the book for sheer sloppiness of fact, we need to say a few words about it. In both the book and the documentary, Jacobovici makes the claim that he found the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth along with the tomb of “Mariamne”, and other names that are strongly associated with Jesus’ disciples and family. As scholars have pointed out, names like “Jesus”, “Jacob”, “Levi”, “Joseph”, “Mary” and so on, were extremely common. In a time where there were no last names, you had to refer to them by some attribution “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Mary, the mother of Joses”, “Levi also known as …”, “Joseph, son of Heli” and so on. Hence, a lot of the probability statistics used in the documentary and the book are far from being an exact criteria to determine that these names indeed correspond to Jesus of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene and the Apostles. In other words, the probability calculations are bogus.
The rest of the article is bogus and, again, I leave the response to a competent scholar, Richard Bauckman (links are provided at the beginning of this article). But, as you can see, Jacobovici does not know as much as he makes the public think he knows. It’s all for public manipulation and money!
Did you know that according to a 5,000 years old myth, Horus was born of a virgin, just like Jesus, and that he had twelve Apostles, and died crucified, only to be resurrected later?
Well … I’m sorry to report that if you know any of this information, you don’t know all that much.
The Jesus = Horus Thing …
Oh my GOOOOOOOOODDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Give me a nickel every time I’ve seen these and other related graphics over Facebook and other places!
But beyond that … give me a big dollar for every time I challenge this view, and then the person who posted it will proudly tell me how he or she actually researched the matter very, very deeply, using all sorts of “expert” opinions about it. If you give me all those dollars, I will be certain to get out of poverty.
Now, before I discuss the matter a bit deeper, I want to concede my opponents one very big point. The images of Isis with Horus are so strikingly similar to the ones with the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus!
However, the similarity between Jesus and Horus pretty much ends there. Horus was not born of a virgin, he did not have twelve disciples, he did not heal the sick, he was never crucified, and most definitely did not rise from the dead.
- First of all, contrary to what is claimed in the first graphic above, the Horus myth did not exist 5,000 years ago. That is about 800 years off from the origins of the Horus myth.
- Isis, her mom, was not exactly a virgin in any sense of the word. Actually if you do a bit of genuine research, you learn that Osiris was killed by being chopped into 14 pieces. So, how did Isis get pregnant? Answer: She took each one of the pieces and re-built her husband, she engaged in … ummm… sexual intercourse with the corpse, and that’s how Horus was conceived. There is no trace of virginity there, right?!
- Horus was born, but it was nowhere near 25th of December. Of course, this date didn’t exist 2,200 B.C.E. for the simple reason that the Julian-Roman Calendar didn’t exist at the time … so, no December. OK! OK! That sounds a bit picayune and you might still argue that Horus birth was celebrated at the equivalent to 25th December in the Egyptian calendar at the end of the solar year … Well… .not even THAT is true. It was actually celebrated during the period equivalent to our October and November.
- There is no inscription anywhere in the universe (except on Facebook and some misled websites) about Horus having twelve disciples. You can search all of the ancient writings in papyri, or writings on the walls on monuments, the pyramids, and so on… you won’t find one, not one … not in a long shot!
- He didn’t raise “Asar” from the dead either. In fact, “Asar” and “Lazarus” are etimologically unrelated. “Lazarus” comes from the semitic and Hebrew name “Eleazar” (אלעזר) which means “El (God) has helped”. The name “Lazarus” is the result of a Hellenization of the name (Λάζαρος). On the other hand, “Asar” is another name of Osiris, Horus’ father, and he was never raised from the dead. As a matter of fact, one trait of the Egyptian gods is that they are born, and when they die, they don’t come back from the dead. They do inhabit the spiritual realm… but that is another thing altogether.
- Does the fact that Horus escaped Typhon means that the Jesus story of His escape to Egypt was based on it? But do you know how many stories of gods, heroes, kings, etc. do we have of them escaping? For instance, Pompey escaped Caesar… does that mean that this story was based on Horus escaping Typhon? Ok … I now hear the objection that the reason for believing that Horus myth was the basis for Jesus’ story is because of the details around it. Typhon questioned Horus’ legitimacy and wanted to kill him, so did Herod with Jesus. Yet, when you go to the real details, it seems that this is not the case. Osiris was never told by an angel or messenger that his son would be killed so he had to flee… If you are paying attention, you realize that Osiris was already dead when his son was born.
- Horus was never crucified … never ever. How do I know? Very simply, crucifixion did not exist at the time the Horus myth was first told. Crucifixion seems to have originated in Persia by the 7th century B.C.E. It was adopted much later by the Romans as a means of torture, and it was discontinued as an instrument of torture during the fourth century. The Horus myth is completely unrelated to this.
- Horus did not rise from the dead, precisely because he never died. Whatever you might think about Horus, he is not an example of resurrection.
And these are just few aspects about the Horus=Jesus thingy. Each one of the claims made by these graphics is false, including (but not limited to) the statement that he was visited by wise men, or that he was “baptized” by Anup “the Baptizer”, whoever THAT is. The effort invested by some people trying to demystify Christian beliefs by believing this falsity is very amusing. Even Bill Maher fell into this lie in Religulous.
Do I think that my Anti-Christian friends (and enemies) are lying when they said that they researched the matter “thoroughly”? No. The problem is that they are basing their “research” on (questionable) secondary sources. Let me explain Historians’ jargon. “Primary sources” are the prime sources that serve as the basis for any historical claim. For instance, if you wish to know about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, then his original German book, Kritik vor reinen Vernunft, is one of the primary sources. A secondary source is a source that refers to primary sources. For example, if you want to read a book about Kant’s philosophy, then that would be a secondary source. The book on Kant’s philosophy is based on the primary sources, i.e. the actual publication of in German of Kant’s works.
So … the research regarding the astounding similarities on Jesus and Horus are based on secondary sources. Here is where the profession of History becomes a bit tricky (believe me, I’ve done historical research myself!). Historians and scholars… (and by this I mean real and responsible historians and scholars) seek to support their claim by adopting the custom of quoting renowned and widely recognized as reliable secondary sources (which might be fallible anyway), or primary sources themselves.
Who are the authors who have written “secondary sources” about the similarities between Horus and Jesus? We have names of the authors and the books in question.
*Acharya S. The Christ Conspiracy. IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999.
*Acharya S. Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2004.
*Gerald Massey. Ancient Egypt: the Light of the World. US: NuVision Publications, 2009. (Originally published in 1907).
*Gerald Massey. The Historical Jesus and Mythical Christ: Natural Genesis and Typology of Equinoctial Christolatry. US: Book Tree, 2000. (Originally published in 1900).
*James Frazer. The Golden Bough. (Originally published in 1890).
*John Jackson. Christianity before Christ. Austin: American Atheist Press, 1985. (This was the first book I read on the subject during my teenage years … and I actually believed it. Thank goodness I bothered to make a research later and found almost all of its claims to be false).
*Thomas Doane. Bible Myths and their Parallels in Other Religions. US: Book Jungle, 2006. (Originally Published in 1882).
*Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
*Tom Harpur. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. US: Walker & Company, 2004.
These are the so-called experts many of the Jesus=Horus mythicists use for “research”, yet, they can quote no primary ancient source, for their most controversial claims, and if they do, they generally misquote it. If you have read any of these books, or any other books by these authors, or you have read any books based on them, just know that none of these authors have any academic credibility whatsoever. This is not a claim made by a liberal Christian writing this blog post. This is the unanimous opinion by every single Historian, Egyptologist, and Scholar competent in the area.
In fact, the whole thing was made up by Thomas Doane, James Frazer, and Gerald Massey. This was accomplished thanks to mistranslations, outdated information, overreading and LOTS of imagination. In other words, these supposed “secondary sources” are totally unsupported by evidence (i.e. primary sources). Tom Harpur has been one of the most visible and recent representatives of this tendency, and historians and Egyptologists continuously denounce his work unanimously as bogus. If you think that I am saying this because I am a Christian, think again. This link, will lead you to the History News Network, a network made by professional historians, not by Bible fundamentalists, and one of its articles evaluates Tom Harpur’s books, and asks to the top eminent specialists in Ancient Egyptian mythology about many of his claims (Read the Article).
My Point …
Now, here’s the deal … I’m not bothered by the fact that many people don’t believe in God. In fact, I find a lot of reason for people to be Anti-Christian: the promotion of slavery, murdering Jews, the Inquisition, genocidal killings of whole peoples, and so on. The problem comes when people become so “in-your-face” and so “self-righteous” about it. They often criticize Christians for being blinded by their own beliefs in the world and remaining ignorant. This is the self-righteousness that we can see in the graphics above. Yet, irony abounds when I actually show people the evidence that what they posted is false, and they become as ideologically blind as Bible fundamentalists … and they are proud of it!
The vast majority of my friends know that I’m not exactly the average Christian, and that I do actually know that many things in the Bible are historically false, and that I criticize my church for lots of things it is doing. And yet, despite this, many of them who believe the Horus = Jesus falsity will actually make an appeal to the fact that I am a Christian, and that I need to believe that this information is false … even when all the available evidence makes my position correct. And the situation is made worse by the fact that even when I give them actual and real information about the falsity of most of the Bible claims … they purposely disregard it … Why? Because I am a Christian, and for some reason, Tom Harpur has to be correct, even when every competent Bible scholar and Egyptologist thinks he is wrong, even when there is no evidence (primary sources) for his claims. If I suggest Bart Ehrman’s works (say … Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrputed, or Did Jesus Exist?), then they tell me that he is a bad scholar because of what his “arch-nemesis”, Richard Carrier, says in his bogus project. And, yes, he is another incompetent in the field of Bible scholarship (again, the unanimous position of compentent scholars in the field. I will write about him soon.
Anyway, I needed to get this off my chest, because I am often shocked at the level of self-righteousness many militant atheists (of course, not all of them) are adopting, leading them to exactly the same mistakes (even that of intolerance) that they so criticize of Christianity. This is just one example among many. Sometimes what is so dangerous is not a religious or secular belief, but the attitude being adopted by an individual or group, especially such degree of certainty on your convictions, that you will do everything to humiliate and alienate other people just because they don’t believe as you do. We had a history of that with Christianity, we had a history of that in the Soviet Union. Enough is enoguh! See why I hate self-righteousness when I spot it?
Aquí hago disponible la versión 0.2 del material educativo: El surgimiento del judaísmo y el cristianismo primitivo.
¿Cuáles han sido los últimos cambios? En primer lugar, en cuanto al capítulo 1, se pulió más el estilo para que fuera más comprensible. A la misma vez corregía los remanentes de otros errores que se habían quedado en la versión 1.9. Finalmente, añadí un poco más de información en el texto y en las notas finales de ese artículo. Una vez más, gracias a la Profesora Isis Pagán por su ayuda.
El segundo capítulo no tuvo mayores cambio, fuera de la corrección de estilo y errores.
Añadí un tercer capítulo en torno a la figura de Juan el Bautista, tema esencial para poder comprender el ministerio de Jesús desde un punto de vista historiográfico.
Como siempre he dicho, ustedes pueden contribuir a esta obra. Para ello, pueden escribirme a email@example.com.
Como es un libro de texto, considero esta obra como funcional, y la hago disponible bajo tres licencias copyleft: la licencia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, la GNU Free Documentation License y la GNU General Public License. Las tres licencias caen bajo las definiciones de Obra Cultural Libre y de Conocimiento Abierto. Por ahora, hago disponible el texto en PDF y en ODF (éste último para propósitos de modificación, debe considerarse código fuente). Se recomienda que se baje e instale las letras Linux Libertine y Ezra SIL para ver el documento correctamente en ODF.
El documento ODF puede modificarse con la ayuda de LibreOffice. Está disponible para los sistemas operativos Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux, Illumos, y los sistemas *BSD (incluyendo a PC-BSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, entre otros).
El PDF usualmente se puede ver con Adobe Acrobat Reader, u otros programas alternativos y libres tales como SumatraPDF en el caso de Windows, Skim si se utiliza una versión Mac, o Evince u Okular en caso de sistemas operativos tipo Unix: GNU/Linux, PC-BSD, FreeBSD, Illumos, etc.
Rarely do we find a person in history who has been so loved and at the same time hated than Saint Paul. Christians in general love him and have a deep respect for him. There is a reason for that. For all practical purposes, Saint Paul provided the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity as we know it. Still, there are some who despise him. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that he was the founder of Christianity as the religious movement we know today. What about Jesus Christ? In the words of Nietzsche: "There was only one true Christian and he died on the Cross" (The Antichrist).
On the other hand, there are those who hate him for good reasons. First, there are the Jews. We can find plenty of statements from St. Paul where he said that the Torah, the Law of Moses, was no longer valid after Jesus’ death. According to him, Jesus’ sacrifice means the end of the Law. Only faith in Jesus Christ, and not the deeds of the Law, saves the soul. But for Jews, that is a minor transgression compared to several passages where St. Paul apparently demeans Jews in a big way, and even it seems that he is happy that they had suffered some of God’s chastisements.
Feminists are among the first who hate St. Paul. If you read his letters, you get the impression that he was a misogynist, declared women inferior, and even ordered them to shut up in assemblies. After all, sin entered the world thanks to women! Furthermore, for the modern mind, his views of matrimony where women should be subordinated to men are outdated and completely unfounded. And to worsen the whole thing, he even tells people to practice celibacy.
Last, but not least, the GLBTT (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transsexual-Transgender … etc.) community hates the passages where he actually says that effeminates and homosexuals will not go to heaven, because they carry out contra-natura acts.
This article is not meant as a Christian apology of Saint Paul, but rather an exposition of the best historical profile we can provide according to the most recent studies by serious Biblical scholars. I will use Senén Vidal’s analysis, but I’m not going to agree with him in everything. The purpose of this article is to show the most important points where Christianity and its opponents agree and diverge to who Saint Paul really was.
Some Considerations Regarding the Acts of the Apostles
Scholars have been skeptical about some claims made by the Acts of the Apostles. It is true that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts, but we don’t really know his identity. We can recognize, though, that he wrote the Acts many years after St. Paul’s death (A.D. 58), about A.D. 80 or 90. We also know that it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem under Titus (A.D. 70). This means that the Acts came to be after Christians were banned from synagogues, as a result of being blamed by Jews in part for such horrendous outcome.
The author of the Acts showed a tendency among Christians who lived such dismissal from Judaism. Let us remember that Jewish leadership at the time was divided between different sects: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes (the latter established itself in Qumran). The Pharisees were members of the priestly elite in Jerusalem, and used their religious authority to preserve the purity of the Jewish ways. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees wanted to preserve the Torah and its integrity, while rejecting gentile or pagan influence. It is highly probable that the Pharisees were the ones who wanted Christians to be banned from synagogues after A.D. 70. Although not all zealous Jews were Pharisees, in the minds of many Christians, especially in gentility, they were synonymous.
If you read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the term "Pharisee" is used to mean a pious or "zealous Jew", not always it meant "the Pharisee priests".
Also, St. Paul’s influence in the Mediterranean, and the way people regarded him as an Apostle of Christ, led many Christians to question his authority, given that he never met Jesus. The author of the Acts of the Apostles was interested in showing St. Paul as an eminent figure with Apostolic authority.
At the same time, he liked to present St. Paul as someone who is respected by gentiles, especially by the Roman authorities.
Some Considerations Pertaining the Corpus Paulinum
To have an accurate profile of St. Paul we have to face the problems that come from the corpus paulinum, i.e. a set of letters in the New Testament which are considered to be written by St. Paul. I don’t have space to talk much about them, but there are three problems regarding it:
- First, some of the letters allegedly written by Saint Paul were not written by him. Some of the letters written by St. Paul reflect the Christian mentality of his time and were widely accepted in Christianity before the second century C. E. However, there were some others which were not recognized as coming from St. Paul until much later during the second and third centuries. These post-pauline letters are: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews. All of these letters speak of the situation of the Pauline communities at the end of the first century or the first part of the second.
- Still, there is another problem with the authentic Pauline letters: there are later Christian interpolations in many of them. Much of these interpolations reflect opinions which are clearly not St. Paul’s. Scholars had a hard job digging them out of the authentic texts, trying to make sense out of them.
- Finally, even if we take out the interpolations, and the pseudoepigraphic letters, we have the problem regarding the way these letters are arranged. For instance, according to the most recent scholarship, 1 and 2 Corinthians were originally five different letters. The sixteenth chapter of the Letter to the Romans was in reality a separate letter to a community in Ephesus. The letter to Philemo consists of two different letters.
Keeping in mind the inherent difficulties of the Acts of the Apostles, and the real authentic letters, let us proceed to find out who St. Paul was, and was not.
Different Aspects of St. Paul’s Life
Both Christians and opponents have a particular conception of St. Paul as being a person born in Tarsus, who inherited Roman citizenship, studied in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, was a witness of St. Stephen’s death, and traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians where he had a vision of Jesus and converted to Christianity.
There are many aspects of this that need to be clarified. It seems true that St. Paul was a Jew, specifically from Benjamin’s tribe. It also seems true that he was born in Tarsus, which can explain why he had two names, one Jewish (Saul) and one Hellenistic (Paul). However, he did not acquire Roman citizenship by being born in Tarsus or inheriting it, since being born there is not really a way to be a Roman citizen by birth. If we look at the documentation we have available in the New Testament, the only place where it says that he is a Roman citizen is in the Acts of the Apostles. Nowhere in the authentic letters does St. Paul say that he is a Roman citizen. In fact, if we explore them, we realize that he could not have been a Roman citizen, because particular chastisements he suffered were strictly forbidden for Roman citizens:
Five times I have been given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and once I have been in open sea for a night and day (2 Cor. 11:25, my bold).
Why would the author of the Acts say that St. Paul is a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29; 23:27)? The answer lies in the fact that he wants to show St. Paul as generally a good Roman citizen, as a respectable figure in gentility. However, everything we have from St. Paul himself speaks against that fact.
Also there is a problem with the allegation that St. Paul was formed by Gamaliel in Jerusalem, and that he witnessed St. Stephen’s death. But St. Paul’s own words seem to contradict all of these facts. In his letter to Galatians, he states the following regarding his conversion:
But when God . . . called me through his grace and chose to reveal His Son in me . . . I was in no hurry to confer with any human being, or to go up to Jerusalem to see those who were already Apostles before me. Instead, I went off to Arabia, and later I came back to Damascus. Only after three years did I go up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas (Gal. 1:15-18).
Some verses later, he says:
After that I went to places in Syria and Cilicia; and was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judaea which are in Christ, they simply kept hearing it said, ‘The man once so eager to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he used to try to destroy,’ and they gave glory to God for me (Gal. 1: 21-24).
Notice the curious scenario vis-a-vis the traditional knowledge on St. Paul. Why would St. Paul "return to Damascus" and only went to Jerusalem briefly? More puzzling still is his statement that none of the Christian communities in Judaea knew about him. Jerusalem is in Judaea. In other words, everything points to the fact that St. Paul did not live in Jerusalem, nor did he persecute anyone in that place. Apparently he persecuted Christians in Damascus because he was from that place. Only in the Acts of the Apostle does he appear as going from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians.
Which leads us to the next question: was he a Pharisee priest? This is a very difficult point. The Acts of the Apostles is a late document, whose author equates Pharisees with pious or zealous Jews. So, it could be possible that St. Paul was a zealous Jew, but was not a Pharisee strictly speaking. We could also say that his letters do not reflect the language of a Jew formed in Palestine, but rather as one formed in a Hellenistic environment, which would further reinforce the point that he did not grow up nor was he formed in Jerusalem.
We have to mention, though, that in the authentic Pauline letters we find a statement that St. Paul was a Pharisee, and it is in his letter to the Philippians:
Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless. But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses (Phil. 3:5-7)
However, this passage itself forms part of a bigger passage (Phil. 3:1b-4:1) which has signs of being a later interpolation within the original letter. Practically such a passage demonizes the Jews (as we shall see, St. Paul never did that), it seems to reflect strongly on St. Paul’s death, and praises St. Paul in the first person (suggesting that St. Paul is writing his own praise, something out of St. Paul’s character). It also interrupts the sequence of the argument between Phil. 3:1a and 4:2. As expected, the term Pharisee, in this case, is used in the sense of zealous Jew, a person who wanted to follow the Law to the letter.
On the other hand, it seems that the one of the few reliable data provided by the Acts is that probably St. Paul grew up to be an artisan (Acts 18:3).
There is the issue regarding St. Paul’s own conversion. There is no reason to think a priori that the story of his conversion as presented in the Acts of the Apostles is wrong. St. Paul is sincere when he says that he had revelations. In fact, there were many times he had these kinds of mystical experiences. For instance, approximately by the year A.D. 40, he had experienced an abduction to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Some neurologists theorize that he may have had temporal lobe epilepsy, which would have led them to those kinds of experiences.
Regardless of whether this is epilepsy, or revelations of Our Lord, or both, we have to take the story we find in the Acts of the Apostles cum granus salis. Not all of the details offered in the Acts agree with each other. We know that St. Paul had a vision and ended up blind because of it. He saw a bright light, heard a voice, and fell from his horse. However, it is not clear whether the other men with him saw the light, or heard the voice, or fell from their respective horses, or were standing up (Acts 9:1-9; 22:5-16; 26:9-18). Maybe the core of the story regarding St. Paul’s experience might be true, but the discrepancy of the three versions of the story cry out "Handle with care!"
Finally, there is another very important point to this story. Why was St. Paul persecuting Christians in Damascus? As we now know in this analysis of the Biblical texts, he actually lived in Damascus as an artisan, but he was admittedly a pious and zealous Jew. Christians in Palestine were, for all purposes, a branch of Judaism, which practiced the Torah just like all other Jews. How can we explain St. Paul’s persecution of Christians before his conversion? The only possible explanation is that the Christian community in Damascus already showed signs of rejecting the strict path of the Jewish Torah. Damascus itself was very influenced by Hellenistic ideas, and already by 30 A.D., shortly after Jesus’ death, there were Christian communities which started to depart from Judaism.
This demystifies a statement made by many opponents of St. Paul: that he was the one who made Christianity depart from Judaism. Quite the contrary. It seems that before his conversion, St. Paul was furious at the fact that the Damascus community would betray one of the very foundations of Judaism. This also explains why he opened up to gentiles after his conversion to Christianity.
St. Paul’s First Partial Profile
From a biographical standpoint, we now have a partial idea of who Saint Paul really was. He was born in Tarsus, from a Jewish family, from the tribe of Benjamin, who was brought up in the ways of Judaism and Hellenistic thought and philosophy. He was a professional artisan, and was highly intolerant of those Jews who diverged from their Jewish roots and accept Hellenistic ways of thinking. For him, that would be a contamination of Judaism. While he lived in Damascus, he persecuted Christians for not adhering to Jewish Torah. During one of his persecutions, he had a revelatory experience which completely changed his views towards Hellenistic Christians. He converted to a more Hellenistic branch of Christianity, and actively advocated for tolerance towards them.
In my next post, I will talk more about traditional misconceptions about his thoughts and ideas about Jews and women.
Powered by Blogilo