Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inventing Jesus

Lately I've been obsessed with the theory that Christianity was actually begun, not by Jesus, but by St Paul, and that Jesus may actually be a fictional character created by Paul.

The earliest Christian writings are those of Paul, and not those of Jesus's disciples. That seems a little odd to me. But then, as far as that goes, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Who wrote them? And why don't people ask this more often?

Perhaps Christianity began with Paul's vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. This would mean, of course, that some details of Paul's earlier biography had to have been changed -- he could have persecuted heretics before then, but not Christians. This does not seem like a big difficulty to me, compared to all the miracles and coincidences and historical inaccuracies which Christian apologists now have to explain away if they wish to assign any historical credibility to the traditional New Testament.

It seems to me that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and the expulsion of the Jews from their capital and holy city must have been a tremendously traumatic experience, especially for the more pious ones. And it is in traumatic times that people are most susceptible to myth. This natural susceptibility and the drastic disruption of historical records which must have accompanied the disaster of AD 70 seem to me to place the burden of proof on the topic of Jesus historicity more on the side of those who argue that He did exist, than generally seems to be the case in even the most serious discussions of early Christianity.

So, one thing I'm curious about is how many other people before me have wondered whether St Paul made it all up. It seems to me like a rather obvious possibility and one which would explain a lot which otherwise is mysterious, including the way Paul absolutely dominates early Christian theology.

I also wonder whether it is hard to be taken seriously among American biblical scholars if one questions Jesus's existence, and whether perhaps that theory is more widely accepted among the scholars, and perhaps even the churches, of countries other than my native USA.

One thing which makes me particularly dubious of Jesus' actual existence is how his biography seems to be cobbled together from Old Testament prophecy -- his supposedly being a descendant of David, being born in Bethlehem but living in Nazareth -- and borrowings from the biographies of others: as with Moses, an evil king supposedly had all male babies in the land killed in order to rid himself of a prophecied challenge to his rule. (I find it very hard to believe that either Pharaoh or Herod did any such thing. Attempting something like that is the sort of thing which gets kings overthrown and killed.) As with Mithras, Jesus was born to a virgin around the winter solstice. As with Dionysis, He returned from the dead in the spring as a savior. Take away the parts of the story of Jesus which are borrowed from other stories, and, it seems to me, little is left. This is more characteristic of fictional characters than of actual people.

The most prominent figure I know of who has expressed doubts about Jesus' existence is Rudolf Augstein, the publisher of the Spiegel, the most influential news magazine of postwar Germany. In 1972 he published a book entitled Jesus Menschensohn (Jesus Son of Man), which appeared in a revised version in 1999. The second-most famous would have to be Bruno Bauer, who is most famous for his feud with Karl Marx.

Atheists and agnostics -- and progressive Moslems and modern Pagans and what have you -- who are convinced that Jesus never existed -- for example, there is a -- these people I find just as unconvincing as the believers, and for very similar reasons. It's just a theory, I'm not convinced about anything one way or the other here. I'm not convinced that there wasn't actually a wandering preacher named Jesus who got himself crucified by Pilate. As far as that goes: there were lots of wandering preachers in Judea and Galilee and environs at that time, and Jesus was a very common name, and so, it seems quite possible to me that several different wandering preachers named Jesus could have gotten themselves crucified by Pilate, in which case the biographies of several of them could have contributed to the story of Jesus. On the other hand, if the story of Jesus is mythical, 100% mythical as opposed to being someone's actual biography with mythical elements added, then someone had to create that myth, no?

James George Frazer, in a footnote in volume IX, p. 412 of the unabridged version of The Golden Bough,published in 1920, dismisses the notion that Jesus was not an historical figure, dismisses it in fact quite emphatically:

As my views on this subject appear to have been strangely misunderstood, I desire to point out explicitly that my theory assumes the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth as a great religious and moral teacher, who founded Christianity and was crucified at Jerusalem under the governorship of Pontius Pilate. The testimony of the Gospels, confirmed by the hostile evidence of Tactius (Annals, xv. 44) and the younger Pliny (Epist. x. 96), appears amply sufficient to establish these facts to the satisfaction of all unprejudiced enquirers. It is only the details of the life and death of Christ that remain, and will probably always remain, shrouded in the mists of uncertainty. The doubts which have been cast on the historical reality of Jesus are in my judgement unworthy of serious attention. Quite apart from the positive evidence of history and tradition, the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer. To dissolve the founder of Christianity into a myth, as some would do, is hardly less absurd than it would be to do the same for Mohammed, Luther, and Calvin. Such dissolving views are for the most part the dreams of students who know the great world chiefly through its pale reflection in books. These extravagances of skepticism have been well exposed by Professor C.F. Lehmann-Haupt in his Israel, seine Entwicklung im Rahmen der Weltgeschichte (Tubingen, 1911), pp. 275-285

-- but at least he acknowledges that the question has been raised. The makers of the PBS series From Jesus to Christ: The First Christiansdo not. In fact, in the opening minutes of the program, the narration, written by Marilyn Mellowes, flatly states: "We know[...]" -- that he was born over 2,000 years ago, that he lived in Palestine, was baptized, became a preacher and was publicly executed. "It is a fact" that Jesus was a subject of the Roman Empire.

We know. It's a fact. Huh. Despite such quibbles, From Jesus to Christ is still the best documentary about early Christianity of which I know.

(I'm not familiar with Professor Lehmann-Haupt's book, not yet, but I include Frazer's reference to it in my quotation from The Golden Bough just in case anyone is interested.)


[...]the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer.

Well, I don't doubt the existence of St Paul.

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