Historical Jesus

A while ago, I read the excellent non-fiction historical biography of Jesus. The book, Jesus: A Historian’s Review of the Gospels, was written by classicist Michael Grant, and attempts to figure out what JC may have actually said and taught, as opposed to what was added later.

I’m going to try and summarize the things I learned from the book. Like my last few posts, for the sake of brevity and saving me time, I will be unscholarly, so although I may be unconvincing, I hope that instead of outright rejecting what I say, these ideas may peak your interest as to whether or not modern scholars really do believe these things, and to go and look up some of the theories for yourself (comma much?).

Before I get into it, I first wanted to digress to talk about theories that Jesus never existed. These theories usually go about discussing how many of the things we know about Jesus are found in many pagan myths about other Gods that predate JC by hundreds and thousands of years. Examples include the virgin birth, son of God, born on Christmas, resurrecting three days after death, and a bunch more. From here they then point out the very poor non-gospel historical records of his existence, and then conclude that he was simply a fabrication of Paul’s pre-modern delusional mind. (if you’re interested, I believe two documentaries go into this: the wretched Zeitgeist (please do not get me started on how much that movie hurt my brain) and The God Who Wasn’t There).
My problem with these theories is that it feels like they’re saying “see, he wasn’t miraculous! Pfff, he probably didn’t exist either”. That is to say, they’re overreaching their conclusion. A better conclusion would have been “All those miraculous things about Jesus were probably added later because the pre-modern, pagan era mind associated godliness with certain miraculous events that existed in everyone’s ‘collective unconscious’.

Onto the book: the Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (all four of which are not believed to have been authored by Jesus’ disciples)) were written between 65 and 100 A.D. (p. 184-189, Grant). Mark is believed to be the first Gospel written, with Matthew and Luke written afterwards and borrowing heavily. Besides using Mark as a basis for their Gospels, it is also believed that Matthew and Luke borrowed from a second document, known as the Q document (from the German Quelle). John’s Gospel is written last, and is starkly different from the other three, being the most theological.

Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth (Galilee) and not Bethlehem (Judaea), the date of which varies by at least ten years depending on which Gospel you use (while King Herod was alive (Matthew), or 10 years after his death (Luke)) *. I think everyone by now knows that there’s no reason to believe he was born on Dec. 25th. (Matthew and Luke also disagree as to how Jesus, through Joseph, was descended by David (which doesn’t make any sense if you accept the virgin birth…which itself is falsely claimed to fulfill an old testament prophecy. This is false because the authors (of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) were reading greek translations of the hebrew bible (the Septuagint), which had a mistranslation of ‘young woman’ into ‘virgin’)).

Anyways, onto more important things. The following are the main differences from the historical Jesus, and the Jesus everyone knows today:

  • Jesus’ main message was that he was to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth within his lifetime, which had already begun under his agency. That is to say, Jesus, like many Jews of his time (John the baptist, the Qumran community, for example), believed that the end of the world was to come within their lifetimes, but Jesus was special since he believed that he had the special gift of making it happen. His main teachings, then, were for everyone (well, the Jews) to work towards securing access to the kingdom of heaven, and working towards making that a reality on earth. Thus, his teachings: sell all your things (you won’t need them); reduce your individuality for the community of the kingdom (love for your neighbour (again, Jews)); accept the practical assistance of women (something which was new for his time); help those who are poor (in spirit); and more, were taught in order for the people to work towards this kingdom, to practically bring it about on earth.
  • Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah either directly or spontaneously, and probably never believed himself to be THE son of God (over and above the idea that God was the father of all the Israelites).
  • As I’ve already hinted, his message was only for the Jews. This should probably come as a shock, as Christianity is a gentile religion. However, this schism (between a jewish vision of Jesus, and a gentile Christ vision), probably occurred due to Saul (who later became St. Paul), and in combination with the first jewish revolt (which occurred 30 years after JC’s death). In this case, those who claimed to be followers of Jesus would have had to separate themselves from the revolutionaries (Jews).

I’ve also read a little about the history of how Jesus’ teachings were reinterpreted, how the new testament came about, and about the progressive philosophical re-imaginings of Christianity (Aquinas, Augustus, Luther, etc.), but that must wait for another time. If you’re interested though, “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong was pretty good, and I highly suggest Peter Watson’s excellentIdeas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud” (for more than just religion as well).
However, I will insert a quote from Walter Kaufman’s “Faith of a Heretic” that I like:

When considering Christianity, it is easy to get lost in the changing fashions of thought that have been read into it or reconciled with it–from Neoplatonism (Augustine) and Aristotelianism (Aquinas) to romanticism (Schleiermacher) , liberalism (Harnack), and existentialism (Tillich, Bultmann, and others). There is no room here to cross swords with a dozen apologists; in any case, dozens more would remain.

Also, if you’re interested in the history of the Bible, in particular the English translation of it (15th century), I would suggest the following website. I particularly like how King Henry the VIII usurped the Pope and was the first to make the English bible available legally (so that people other than the priests could read the good book).

Finally, I thought I’d talk about a paper by Dennett, titled ‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers‘. In the article, Dennett talks about interviews that were conducted with, as the title suggests, non-believing preachers. The interesting part of this article is that many of these preachers lost their faith through the education that takes place in becoming a priest (the seminary), which teaches (among other things) scholarly study of the bible, the history of the bible, and the actual history of the times in which the events in the bible were claimed to have taken place in (archeology and historical records). I find this fascinating, because I wonder how many people would still be religious if this kind of information was known by everyone.

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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2 Responses to Historical Jesus

  1. Sonders says:

    historical Jesus

    Jesus’ main message was that he was to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth within his lifetime, which had already begun under his agency.
    Ya its a very nice article.
    Jesus Potter Harry Christ

  2. Its rightly said that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah either directly or spontaneously, and probably never believed himself to be THE son of God (over and above the idea that God was the father of all the Israelites).

    Jesus Potter Harry Christ

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