A Study in Three Parts
Note: The following three posts are written in response to Robin Artisson's "Why a Return to Indo-European Polytheism is Needed." At one point, he writes, "I would personally like to see Christian apologists explain to me, and the rest of the world, why all mentions of the resurrection, as well as many other claims to the divinity of Jesus, and miracle stories, are not in these earliest manuscripts of the Gospels." And though I in no way consider myself a Christian apologist, I don't mind rising to the challenge.Further Note: Just to put these posts, which will be rather verbose and "heady" (fair warning), into perspective, I just thought I'd point out that I sat at the computer writing for so long that I now have a cramp in my right forearm. On the other hand, this afternoon while sitting in mediation out on my bedroom balcony, I think I may have seen my first "faery." So there's that, too.
In a recent post, blogger Robin Artisson, proposed this intriguing question:
"What if the entire New Testament was a construct, a forgery, a fake? What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure cobbled together from the myths of many other Gods that long pre-existed Christianity?"
Now, as "a Christian on the Druid Path" (one day I will elaborate on exactly what this phrase means to me) and as a comparative religious scholar with more than a passing interest in the theological, ritual and spiritual uses of sacred texts in various religious traditions, I figured I'd take on the various issues that such a hypothetical question raises. (Plus, Erik ecently challenged me to consider more seriously my relationship with Jesus as a deity, and so I might as well address some of the more theological/intellectual issues that the figure of Jesus raises first, before moving on.) For me, these two questions incorporate (and perhaps confuse) two very different objections to the "truth" of Biblical texts within the Christian tradition: (a) what if Jesus was not an historical person (i.e. a person who actually existed in the time and place the Bible says he did); and (b) what if Biblical texts are inaccurate or intentionally misleading regarding the actions, words and ontological nature that it attributes to him. In the rest of this post, I'll tackle each of these issues separately (the one being much easier, in my opinion, to deal with quickly and cleanly than the other).
The Historical Person of Jesus
In general, I've found it very hard to collect a solid amount of thorough, serious and scholarly work on this particular subject. There are, of course, a few of those books out there citing evidence to prove or disprove the existence of an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who was executed by the Roman state for perceived political rebellion. Every once in a while, I'll bug Nathan, a good friend of mine and my former faculty advisor when I was attending college, to make some recommendations about respectable or helpful books on the matter; inevitably, he replies that there just aren't very many because, quite honestly, it's not a topic that is considered to have much relevance in the study of Christianity as a religion. There are a few reasons for this.
- First, it is notoriously difficult to prove the existence of particular historical figures, especially if their cultural or social importance developed posthumously and within a minority community that was actively repressed or otherwise censored by the larger contemporary culture. Furthermore, it is simply impossible to prove that such a person did not exist; strictly speaking, it is impossible to prove the theoretical nonexistence of anything, and the best we can do is make statements about the relative likelihood that something or someone did or did not exist. (In case you were wondering, this is a very handy point to bring up when discussing the existence of God with atheists, as it makes clear how the belief in the nonexistence of a god is still, in the end, a belief, and not proof. The closest we can come to such a proof is Douglas Adam's excellent proof-by-contradiction regarding the "babel fish".) That said, the analysis of Biblical texts suggests that it is very likely that there was a person by the name of "Jesus" who lived in the time and place that the various texts claim and did at least some of the things they record.
- Secondly, the historical reality of this one particular person is not crucial to the understanding of the role such a person (and that person's death) played or would have played within the early social or cultural development of Christianity. This may sound a bit shocking, until we consider that, at this point in history, social and political tensions--both between Roman and Jewish culture, and within the Jewish religious community itself--gave rise to many such politico-religious "messianic" figures preaching various forms of alternative religious paths. When I was growing up, in fact, this was often presented to me as evidence that Jesus was the "real thing," since his death made such a huge impact as to be remembered two thousand years later, while other similar martyrs of the time faded into the obscurity of history. It could just as easily be argued that the idea of Jesus had such staying power because it developed as a compilation of and extrapolation from this common social figure. Either way, it is the idea of the person of Jesus which is most relevant to Christianity as a religious system, and clearly the idea did exist historically.
- Lastly, it is not the role of scholarly studies of religions to determine "which religion is true." The belief in an historical person of Jesus who is theologically identical to the deity-Person of Jesus Christ is approached as an aspect of the Christian faith or a part of Christian mythology. Scholars generally consider proving the historical existence of Jesus about as relevant to the study of Christianity as proving the historical existence of Krishna would be to the study of Hinduism, the Amitaba Buddha to Mahayana Buddhism, or Zeus and Athena to classical ancient Greek religion. Establishing definitively the existence of such people or beings does not necessarily give us much insight into their functions within the development, doctrines or practices of a given religious tradition. At best, disproving the likelihood of an historical person might raise the question, "Why did so many suckers believe it to begin with?" But then, this is more a matter for a sociologist or social psychologist to address (after all, there are plenty of examples even in modern society of everyday, reasonable people believing some pretty strange things--e.g. "fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong").
With all that covered, it's understandable that, in some ways, the answer to this part of the original question, "What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure...?" would be a shrug and a so-what?. It wouldn't be the first time a spiritual or religious system grew up around a text or mythology that was largely "fantastical" and unlikely given what we now know through modern scholarly and scientific efforts. Indeed, most modern believers in any spiritual or religious tradition have come to accept this fundamental uncertainty and/or improbability as a "fact of life" about being a religious person. In the end, the historical existence of Jesus is as much a matter of faith for believers--through the perfectly normal and acceptable lack of definitive proof--as is the existence of any obscure historical figure. Heck, half the time I find it difficult to believe even Paris Hilton's real!
What We Know & How We Know It
Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts
Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus
Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts
Part III: The Part that Passion Plays