The most probable rational conclusion is that there was indeed a human who claimed to be a Messiah and was then executed. However, when it comes to the various supernatural and miracle claims, there are very good reasons for considering all that to be mythology. Read on and I’ll explain exactly why.
Common Patterns within Religious Movements
If we look at belief systems that have recently emerged such as Mormonism or Scientology, then we have independent historical information that we can fall back upon. This enables us to discover the truth regarding the founders of those beliefs, and what we find if we do so is rather interesting.
Take for example Joseph Smith. He is asserted to have been especially chosen by god and is also claimed to be a prophet, but there is no truly independent evidence to verify those specific claims. What we do however discover from other sources outside the belief system is that Smith was neither ethical nor honest, but rather a bit of a rogue who was more than willing to cash in on peoples gullibility. His contemporaries consistently describe him as a con man whose chief source of income was hiring himself out to local farmers to help them find buried treasure by the use of folk magic and “seer stones.”, and that is not simply opinion, there is a legal record that verifies this, and so it is a well-established fact that in 1826 he was put on trial for money-digging. Smith also claimed in his 1838 account that he had suffered “great persecution” for telling people of his vision, but rather oddly none of his critics writing in the 1820s about his money digging activities appear to have been aware of any such claims. He faced “persecution” for conning gullible farmers, not for making religious claims.
So ask yourself this – is Smith really the most obvious and best choice for a supernatural entity to make when choosing a human to be his representative? Is is not not far more probable that a known fraudster was pulling yet another con.
The ex-mormon Richard Packham discusses it all in a lot more detail here: http://packham.n4m.org/tract.htm#MONEYDIGGING
As for L Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology and science fiction writer, his life is well-documented and there are people alive today who knew him personally. The Church of Scientology describes him as a pioneering explorer, world traveler, and nuclear physicist with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including photography, art, poetry, and philosophy. His critics, which includes his own son, have pointed out that he was in reality a liar, charlatan, and mentally unstable. There is of course an official autobiography, and despite being verified as fiction, the church endorses it as fact.
James Randi, the renowned skeptic whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting many times, when asked about L Ron Hubbard nailed it all with this observation:
“I’ve personally met Ron Hubbard twice, and both times he was drunk”.
We can in fact look further back and still see a similar pattern. If we consider Mohammed, as viewed by many variations of Islamic belief, we find a sugar coated view of a perfect man who supposedly received a revelation from a god and is asserted to be the final prophet. If however we dig into the facts, we find a rather different picture and instead discover an individual who was a slave trader, and also a violent thug who enriched himself by raiding trade caravans. Rather shockingly we also find an individual who was a pedeophile – yes really, at the age of 50, he claimed he had a vision that inspired him to marry a six year old, and this is not simply a slur invented by his detractors, there are multiple islamic sources, both Shia and Sunni, that verify this.
In summary there are two points here:
- Belief systems tend to generally have an individual who initiated it all, and don’t appear out of nowhere.
- The founder tends to get revered and is usually deemed to have been especially chosen or inspired by a god to be his official representative and is also asserted to be perfect, or at least an ideal human, and yet when we look, we find in every case where information is available that what the belief asserts, and the actual reality are very much at odds.
So What About Jesus?
The problem with Jesus is that too much time has passed, and so we do not have anything that can independently verify the claims asserted by the vast diversity of Christian belief. Given the amount of time that has passed and a huge motivation to purge anything that does not serve the prevailing narrative, then this is perhaps to be expected. The common pattern we do have should cause us some considerable degree of doubt, because what we do observe is that in every single independently verifiable case, the claims asserted by a belief regarding their founder, and the actual reality are not just distinctly different, but consist of a pattern where the religious version is quite understandably a whitewashed sugar-coated story and the reality is that of an individual who was a bit of a rogue and con artist who took advantage of his followers.
There are independent sources that record that an individual from Galilee managed to gather together a small band of followers as he wandered about proclaiming himself to be a messiah, and was executed as an undesirable. There are several that are clearly not Jesus, so we will get to that later. The generally held consensus regarding Jesus amongst most academic scholars, not just the religious ones but also the secular ones, is that there was indeed a real human under all the layers of mythology.
Is this simply a view crafted by prevailing beliefs or is there some actual justification for it?
There are a couple of reasons to swing in this direction. Firstly, the Gospels themselves do contain a distinct pattern that suggests this. The first gospel, Mark, was written in about 65 CE and portrays a Jesus who suffixed all his miracles with the strict instruction to keep it a secret. At the time of writing it is distinctly possible that there would still be people who remembered him, but would not have remembered seeing any miracles, so there is a rather contrived effort here to explain this. It is also a story about a misunderstood Jewish Messiah that nobody recognised. The final part of the Gospel was not in the original text, it was added on later, it originally finished as follows at v8…
And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.
… and so a text written within living memory of the claimed events describes why nobody remembered it – they never said anything to anybody. Later v9-20 was tacked on once time had passed and there was nobody left to remember things differently.
About a decade later Matthew and Luke appear. They basically copy Mark and add a lot more material. There we find two distinctly different conflicting birth narratives that appear to have been contrived to explain how Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee was really a chap born in the city of David, Bethlehem, and also two different genealogies designed to assert a lineage back to King David. The manufacturing of these convoluted narratives and genealogies would tend to suggest a need to associate this history, which was a necessity to establish a Jewish Messiah claim, with somebody who was well-known to have been from somewhere else. None of these narrative contortions would be necessary for a wholly fictitious mythological person.
We do also have Paul, who never personally met Jesus and was very much off in his very own unique theological universe, making reference to a chap named James whom he had personally met, and referred to him as the brother of Jesus.
The conclusion of all this raw textual analysis does indeed strongly point towards the existence of a real human. The need to massage what was known with the requirements for a messiah claimant clearly point in this direction.
Do we have any candidates?
Do we have any non-Christian records about somebody from Galilee about 2000 years ago who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, and ended up being killed by the Romans?
Actually yes we do, there is not just one, but several. First there is Judas of Galilee who founded the “fourth sect” of 1st century Judaism and ended up being executed by the Romans. Then there was also his son Menahem ben Judah, who also claimed to be a messiah, and also ended up dead because of a conspiracy against him. The sources for both of these comes from the writing of Josephus.
It turns out that when you consider the wider picture, it becomes clear that wandering about claiming to be the messiah, drumming up a bit of support, and then getting killed was rather popular at that time, so while neither of the above is a match for Jesus, it does indicate that the most probable answer here is that the ideas of a similar wandering messiah claimant went viral.
Today, most scholars agree that Jesus as an individual existed, was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who preached his message, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem. For everything else beyond that, there is no consensus at all.
What happened after his death is the addition of rather a lot of supernaturalism and also the application of death and rebirth myths.
The ideas took root, then rapidly grew and evolved over time into the prevailing variations of Christianity that we have today. Even if we do also cast aside all the layers of supernaturalism, what we have left can itself be doubted. The sayings and attributes that the vast diversity of different Christian beliefs today assert as fact regarding the character and behaviour of Jesus will in all probability be distinctly different than the original reality. Remember, that the source here, the Gospels, are basically religious propaganda.
What do we actually know?
We have documents – the Bible contains four biographies, and we also have a collection of letters that Paul wrote. What we do not have are any independent contemporary sources of information at all, and so these documents, the Gospels and Paul’s letters, are not just the primary sources, but are actually the only sources of any real substance that we have, and so it is wholly appropriate to handle this religious propaganda with a degree of skepticism.
It is about here that you might jump in with, “Oh but wait, I know that there are other historical references”. Actually no there are none that are contemporary. Perhaps the most famous are the references within Book 18 and Book 20 of Josephus, but remember that those were all written in AD 93-94. The general view is these these references as we now have them were forged. I could perhaps expand upon that at some point and explain exactly why, but perhaps it is simply best to sum that up – the usage of some Greek words in these passages is 3rd century and not aligned with the Greek usage in the rest of Josephus’s writings.
It is indeed highly probable that under the many layers of mythology a real Jewish Messiah claimant existed. What has been added on top is clearly myth that has been contrived to fit what was known about this person and blend it in with the requirements expected for a Messiah.
As for the Gospels, there are good reasons to doubt their historical accuracy. the stories themselves when placed side by side do not align but conflict. Each also has a distinctly different character.
If asked if you believe in Jesus, perhaps the best response is to ask a question – which one? – because you have many to select from …
- Mark’s Jesus is a misunderstood rejected Messiah
- Matthew’s Jesus is very much a classical Jewish Messiah who meets all the prevailing requirements and was just there for the Jewish nation, but is happily accepted by all.
- Luke’s Jesus is a Prophet for all of humanity
- John’s Jesus is very much at odds with the previous three and is claimed to be God
Chronologically the idea of who he was evolved. We can clearly see this. The earliest, Mark, was about a rejected Messiah, the last, John, which was written many decades later, finally took the “He was God” stance.
In addition to the above narratives, we also have our modern blending, but viewed through distinctly different variations of belief. This results in many different modern versions of Jesus. For example Catholic Jesus is not the same as Baptist Jesus or Pentecostal Jesus, or Methodist Jesus, or … well you get the idea.
You really do have lots to choose from.
What is is quite fascinating is that under the layers of all this mythology was most probably a real human, with no actual miracles and not God, but has been forgotten and ignored, and so remains unknown. He would have been most probably appalled or perhaps simply amused at everything now associated with him or done in his name.