Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The historical Jesus of Nazareth

In the first century CE, Palestine was full of Jewish prophets warning of God’s coming judgement. The book of Acts tells us of two of them:

Some time ago, Theudas came forward, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. But he was killed and his whole following was broken up and disappeared. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census; he induced some people to revolt under his leadership, but he too perished and his whole following was scattered. [Acts 5:36-8]

Another, recorded by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, was Athronges, a shepherd who proclaimed himself King of the Jews until his movement was crushed. Miracle workers, bandits and messiahs were part of the landscape in first century Palestine.

The best known of these charismatic figures, because he is the only one whose cult achieved lasting success, is Jesus of Nazareth. As the central figure of the Christian New Testament, and of countless works of art, we would profit from a study of who he really was.

Did Jesus exist?

There is no direct physical evidence that Jesus existed. There are no steles with his name carved into them, no letters with his name signed at the bottom. This is not very surprising; and nor is his absence from Roman records, since most people of the time don’t appear in Roman records.

Apart from Christian writings themselves, above all the Gospels, there are only a handful of references to Jesus in contemporary, or near-contemporary, literature. In c.94 CE, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote a book called Antiquities of the Jews in which he mentions Jesus twice. Firstly there is a brief mention in Book 20 of “James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah”. Secondly there is a more important passage known as the ‘Testimonium Flavianum’, or ‘Testimony of Flavius Josephus’:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. [1]

This passage has long been cited as evidence of Jesus’s historicity. As a Jew, however, Josephus would not have said Jesus was the messiah, so the passage has probably been doctored. The current consensus is that he probably did mention Jesus, but that his original words were embellished at some point by a Christian scribe. And Josephus was born after Jesus’s death, so even his original references were second-hand, demonstrating merely that Jesus was talked about in the late first century.

There are a couple of references in 2nd century Roman literature which are generally considered authentic. The first is a mention of Christ in a letter by Pliny to the emperor Trajan dating around 112 CE; the second is by the historian Tacitus in Book 15, Chapter 44 of his Annals. Neither tells us much about the historical Jesus.

Despite the lack of evidence outside the Gospels, historians overwhelmingly agree that some of the material in the Gospels is historical. As the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman observed, “the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” [2] It is asking too much to claim that someone who had such a profound influence on so many people, and who appears in multiple ancient texts, was an invention.

It is very unlikely that anyone in the Jewish world inventing a messiah would have him crucified and then raised from the dead – neither would make sense to the ancient Jewish mind. The ‘messiah’ is the ‘anointed one’, a human being (not in any way divine) who will liberate the people of Israel; a messiah who is captured and executed without achieving this is, by definition, no messiah at all. And there is no precedent in Jewish myth for the Resurrection.

The first Christian whose texts survive, Paul of Tarsus, knew personally Jesus’s brother, James, who ran the cult for thirty years after Jesus died, as well as the disciple Peter (aka Cephas). James and Peter did know Jesus personally. Paul, whose first letters date to about twenty years after Jesus’s death, says little about Jesus’s biography, but the fact that the letters mention Jesus without taking an especial interest in him strengthens their value as a historical source. There is no good reason to think Paul’s immense zeal was inspired by a figment of everyone’s imagination, or to dismiss him, James and Peter as liars.

It is actually rather unusual to have so many independent attestations to a figure from ancient history. Over time, Christianity introduced mythical elements into Jesus’s story, such as the virgin birth, that we may dismiss as unhistorical without doubting that Jesus existed.

How closely the Jesus who actually lived in the past resembles the Jesus Christ of Christianity (Christos being the Greek form of ‘messiah’) is contentious. After he died, different versions of him emerged, both oral and written, from a variety of people in a variety of places, and these inevitably differed. Our most important source is the Gospels. These were not written by people who knew Jesus and wanted to record what they personally had seen – they were written decades after Jesus’s death by early Christians who relied upon oral traditions, and possibly some lost written sources as well. There are very many discrepancies between the Gospels so they cannot be reliable, but we must work with them as best we can, with reference to other materials and the general historical context.

The historical context

The main narrative of the Hebrew Bible leaves off at the end of the 6th century BCE with the return of the Babylonian exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple. The territory of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah was occupied by Persia until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. On Alexander’s death a few years later, his empire was divided between his generals. None would have the power of Alexander, but Greek-speaking culture would remain influential throughout those territories into the Roman era. Judea was under the control of the Seleucid faction in Syria, and there was a debate among the Jews about how far they should accept Hellenisation. In around 164 BCE an anti-Hellenistic war known as the Maccabean Revolt threw out the Seleucids and little Judea became independent for about a hundred years.

Palestine in the time of Jesus, c.4 BCE–6 CE. Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

Judea was conquered for Rome in 63 BCE by Pompey. From 37-4 BCE, Herod the Great was appointed as a client king. After his death, control of Palestine was divided between his three sons (see map), but the Roman province of Judea ended up ruled directly by Roman procurators – effectively governors – who included Pontius Pilate [3], the official who oversaw the execution of Jesus. Rulers of Judea were appointed by the Roman Senate, not by the local population, and certainly not by Yahweh. To claim to be the messiah, the ‘anointed’ king of the Jews, was to reject the authority of the Roman administration. So in Roman eyes, anyone claiming to be the messiah was by definition a rebel, and punishable by death.

There were several attempts at Jewish uprisings. In 6 or 7 CE Judas the Galilean, whom we mentioned at the beginning, proclaimed a free Jewish state and led a serious uprising. In 36 CE a leader called ‘The Samaritan’ took a group of followers up a mountain where Roman soldiers killed them. In 44 CE a prophet called Theudas declared himself the Messiah and gathered hundreds of followers, who were smashed by a Roman army. In 46 CE the brothers Jacob and Simon started yet another movement and were punished with crucifixion. From around 50 CE the Sicarii, an organisation of fanatical Jewish assassins, targeted senior Jewish officials as collaborators: the priesthood would make daily sacrifices in the sacred Temple in honour of the Roman emperor. In 56 CE the Sicarii managed to murder the high priest, Jonathan, on Temple Mount. Another Messiah, known as ‘the Egyptian’, raised thousands of followers who were smashed by Roman troops.

These uprisings were partly fuelled by the ideology of empire and national identity woven into the Hebrew scriptures. Yahweh, the same god who in the Hebrew Bible had told Joshua to exterminate the Canaanites, was a jealous god who would not tolerate foreign occupation. This ideology was at odds with the almost constant foreign occupation of the region and belied by the relative unimportance of Jerusalem, but it helped create a number of radical religious movements committed to independence. More importantly however these movements were also class struggles, mobilising the Jewish poor against a Jewish ruling class that left them in destitution while collaborating with the Roman occupiers.

The powder keg finally blew up in 66 CE when the Jewish Revolt flared up in Jerusalem, temporarily expelling the Romans. Menahem, the leader of the Sicarii, announced himself as yet another messiah, only to be killed by the temple priesthood. Then a bandit leader, Simon of Giora, declared himself the messiah, one with an army of thousands at his command, but his army couldn’t save him from being dragged in chains back to Rome after the Romans’ incredibly bloody recapture of Jerusalem. It took four years, but the Romans eventually crushed the rebellion. All the prophets and zealots had been proved wrong – Yahweh wasn’t helping them. The reconquest culminated in the siege of the fortress of Masada, where in 73 CE the last of the Sicarii killed each other. The defeat of the Jews was on a catastrophic scale.

This was the political ferment into which Jesus was born, and in which he took part as yet another in the long line of would-be Jewish liberators.

The historical Jesus

Allowing for the lack of hard evidence, what can we try to say about this elusive figure?

We know next to nothing about Jesus’s birth. The gospels tell us he was from Nazareth. There is no good reason to doubt this. Jesus (Yeshua) was a common name in ancient Palestine, so it was natural to distinguish him as ‘the Nazarene’. We may discount as obvious nonsense the myth of the virgin birth. The story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – which appears only in Matthew and Luke – was surely invented to tie in with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible claiming the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Luke’s story about a census of the entire Roman empire, which required everybody to travel to the place of their birth with their families to register, is completely ridiculous [4]. Such an upheaval would bring the empire to a standstill, and no other source mentions this immense event. The infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke cannot be made to fit together, so they are not very useful anyway to the historian. No – the real Jesus was probably born in a mud-brick house in Nazareth.

If Jesus was from Nazareth, this implies quite a lot about him, as in this disparaging comment in John 1:46:

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

1st century Nazareth, in the mountainous northern region of Galilee, was an obscure village, a backwater with no roads and one well. The likelihood therefore is that Jesus would have been, like almost everyone else in Nazareth, a wretchedly poor, illiterate peasant. Mark 6:3 claims he was a tekton or builder [5]: not a freelance artisan, as the word ‘carpenter’ might suggest to some, but a labourer barely higher in status than a slave.

There is no mention in the New Testament of Jesus having a wife or children, though it would be highly unusual in that culture for a thirty year-old man to remain unmarried. However it is clear from the gospels and Paul’s letters that he had siblings: four brothers are named in the gospels – James, Simon, Joseph and Judas – one of whom, James [6], became leader of the Christian movement after Jesus’s death. His sisters are unnamed. The Catholic Church continues to insist on the virginity [7] of their mother Mary even after the birth of these other, non-divine, babies; to try and make Mary’s perpetual virginity work, the siblings are explained away as cousins, or Joseph’s children by a previous marriage.

This was not a good time to be a peasant. The Biblical scholar Reza Aslan summarised the situation of the rural poor like this:

The small family farms that for centuries had served as the primary basis of the rural economy were gradually swallowed up by large estates administered by landed aristocracies flush with freshly minted Roman coins. Rapid urbanisation under Roman rule fuelled mass internal migration from the countryside to the cities. The agriculture that had once sustained the meagre village populations was now almost wholly focussed on feeding the engorged urban centres, leaving the rural peasants hungry and destitute. The peasantry were not only obligated to continue paying their taxes and their tithes to the Temple priesthood, they were now forced to pay a heavy tribute to Rome.[8]

The situation was worsened by drought, high unemployment, debt, the loss of land, and the cruelty and corruption of Roman officials. No wonder the Galilean peasants formed marauding gangs, gathering the poor and dispossessed into resistance movements – God’s mission to liberate the Jews through a messiah was fundamentally a political programme, not a religious one.

Galilee was not part of Judea but a separate region with its own strong and separate identity, ruled by Herod Antipas (under ultimate Roman authority) rather than a Roman prefect as in Judea. It had a strong history of rebellion. Aslan writes:

The region had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity for centuries. Long before the Roman invasion, the term ‘Galilean’ had become synonymous with ‘rebel’. Josephus speaks of the people of Galilee as ‘inured to war from their infancy,’ and Galilee itself, which benefited from a rugged topography and mountainous terrain, he describes as ‘always resistant to hostile invasion.’

It did not matter whether the invaders were gentiles or Jews, the Galileans would not submit to foreign rule.

It would be a mistake to think there was a homogenous society of Jews united by a common resentment against Rome. Over the years, Galilee was a thorn in the side not only of the Romans but also of Jewish leaders – Solomon, the Hasmonaeans, and Herod – and there was a north-south cultural tension. Recogniseably Galilean by his accent, Jesus would have been associated with this context by those who heard him speak.

Jesus presumably spent the first thirty years of his life in Galilee. He spent his first decade watching Galilee being put to the sword by the Romans for uprisings, and his second assisting its rebuilding. Given the lack of opportunities in Nazareth, it’s likely he would have spent some time in the cosmopolitan regional capital, Sepphoris; after Judas the Galilean was crushed by Roman troops, Sepphoris was burned, and Jesus could have been there just as Herod Antipas launched a grand rebuilding programme. As a tekton, Jesus might have helped to build fine new houses for the local nobility. We can assume he would have been struck by the contrast between his own impoverished background and the wealth of the Sepphoris elite.

When he was about thirty, Jesus abandoned his former life and travelled south to Judea to be baptised in the waters of the River Jordan by John the Baptist, a well-established ascetic prophet. This was probably the start of Jesus’s religious career. It’s not clear what John’s baptisms represented, as they had no precedent in Judaism. The process was possibly an initiation into his cult, which raised a problem, namely that the baptism of Jesus by John implies John has authority over him. The gospel writers therefore successively play down John’s role: in Mark, Jesus is just another receiver of baptism, but by John, John doesn’t even perform a baptism any more. It is interesting that the writers keep the baptism in the account despite the problems it causes their theology – this suggests it may really have happened.

John’s ideology was apocalyptic: he preached that the end of times was near and that a messiah was at hand. Jesus probably became a follower of John, and his own ideology was similarly apocalyptic: “repent,” he warned, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). When he returned home to Nazareth, he struggled to generate support (he observed “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”) but found nearby Capernaum a more fruitful place to launch his ministry, and began to attract disciples. A Galilean addressing Galileans, he made a powerful appeal to the poor – God had observed their suffering and was going to help them.

One of the main things that impressed people was his miracles. In ancient Palestine, illness was believed to be caused by demons, so the medical solution was to find an exorcist. Jesus was just another in a throng of miracle-workers, except that unusually he offered his services for free. Although the rational reader rejects walking on water, raising the dead and so on as impossible, leaving the nature of the real Jesus’s deeds mysterious, his contemporaries took it for granted that magic was real, and there are no recorded instances of his powers being doubted.

According to Luke, Jesus gathered seventy-two disciples as he travelled around (many of them women), among whom twelve men were the most favoured. These were the Apostles: disciples who were authorised to spread Jesus’s message independently of him.


As a peasant of little education speaking Aramaic, Jesus was quite unlike the Jewish priestly elite, and he set himself up in opposition to them and to the authority of the Temple. He challenged this prosperous class, who enjoyed lives of privilege at the expense of the poor, more even than the Roman occupiers.

Jesus’s social programme reveals him as a radical leftist of his time, which is no great surprise given his background. He famously said “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” His vision of a good way of life was to sell all one’s possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The early Christians lived communally and rejected private property; in Acts 4:32, Luke says of the Apostles: “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”

Even Jesus’s miracles were politically radical, a challenge to the priestly class, as Aslan explains:

The sick, the lame, the leper, the ‘demon possessed’, menstruating women, those with bodily discharges, those who had recently given birth – none of these were permitted to enter the Temple and take part in the Jewish cult unless first purified according to the priestly code. With every leper cleansed, every paralytic healed, every demon cast out, Jesus was not only challenging that priestly code, he was invalidating the very purpose of the priesthood.

With Jesus, there was no tithe, no sacrifice, no parasitical class. The closer he came to Jerusalem, the more threatening to the Jewish and Roman establishment he became. When he talked of the ‘kingdom of God’, it was not an abstract, spiritual kingdom: he meant an actual, earthly kingdom in which the Jews were freed from bondage. This was in the same tradition as all the other rebels and would-be messiahs. For Jesus, though, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 5:3-12) – his would be a nation where the poor, the hungry, the sick, would displace the rich. In Jesus’s ideology, God would punish the rich and powerful (the Jewish ruling class and the Romans) because he was on the side of the oppressed. The real Jesus, who was now leading a popular movement, was not only zealous and confrontational, he must have been a revolutionary.

In roughly 30 CE Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, and was cheered by a waiting crowd waving palm branches who welcomed him as the King of the Jews. Simple as it seems, this is one of the most revealing episodes in Jesus’s life as attested by the gospels.Witnesses to Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem would have known how provocative it was – after all, the task of the messiah was to liberate Israel from bondage, i.e. rule by the Romans. Jesus heads for the Temple and in the outer court he overturns the tables of the money-changers and frees the birds caged as sacrifices for sale, though none of these activities broke any laws, including Jewish religious laws. This fracas was an open challenge to Rome’s allies, the priesthood.

Jesus and his disciples armed themselves and met in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where they were arrested by the authorities.


According to the Gospels, Jesus was taken straight to the high priest Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish judicial body, for an interrogation and judgement. He was then brought before the governor Pontius Pilate, and personally interrogated by him.

The Sanhedrin episode exposes the writers’ ignorance of Jewish law, and is highly dubious. The best we can say is that the priestly authorities may have arrested him and then handed him over to the Romans for trial. There is scanty evidence regarding the prefect Pilate, but references to him by the first century writers Tacitus, Philo and Josephus, and the inscription of his name on the so-called ‘Pilate Stone’, attest to his historicity.

We know next to nothing for sure about the trial, or whether Jesus really had one. The story is first presented in the first Gospel to be written, Mark. The accounts of the trial in the Gospels are quite different. For example, Mark ascribes very few words to Jesus, whereas in John, which is different to the Synoptics, Jesus is quite talkative. According to Philo and Josephus, Pontius Pilate was a hard man with no respect whatsoever for the local culture, who thought nothing of executing Jewish rebels by the thousand. Such a man would have sent the rabble-rouser Jesus straight to the cross. The Gospels claim it was a Passover custom to offer a prisoner’s life, and Pilate offers either Jesus or Barabbas to the mob: to the historian it appears unthinkable that he really would have released a rebel out of sensitivity to the local culture. The disciples of Jesus ran away upon his arrest and would not have been allowed into Pilate’s HQ to attend a trial, if there was one, so it’s not surprising we have no convincing accounts. Later writers probably had little choice but to resort to their imaginations. When they did so, they seem to have had clear motives for choosing to tell the episode a certain way. If the Biblical Pilate’s cultural sensitivity is unconvincing, so too is his reluctance to spill Jesus’s blood, and his willingness to hand over a life-and-death decision to the Jewish masses he despised.

But the literary treatment of Pilate makes more sense when we consider the context in which the New Testament was written. Whereas people who had known Pilate would see through the story in a moment, people in Rome would not. The early Christians wanted to spread their sect to a broad, Roman audience, and to smooth this process they took care to absolve the Romans from blame in Jesus’s death. Blame was transferred to the Jews: a ruse that has fuelled Christian anti-semitism ever since.


Once he was condemned, Jesus was killed by crucifixion. The Romans used crucifixion almost entirely as a punishment for rebels and as a public deterrent. When they put a sign or titulus reading ‘King of the Jews’ [9] above Jesus’s head on the cross, it was a description of his crime: i.e. he was being killed for claiming to be King of the Jews, an act of treason against Rome. This sign is likely to be an accurate historical detail because ‘King of the Jews’ is not part of the terminology used by the early Christians, so they are unlikely to have invented it. The two men crucified on either side of Jesus are described as lestai or bandits, a common term not for ‘thieves’ but for rebels. Jesus was executed for the crime of sedition, like a host of other rebels and bandits. What is remarkable is that unlike the other insurrectionists of the period, he was remembered, and his movement survived him.

Bart Ehrman claims that the real Jesus’s body would have been left on the cross as a warning, defiled by scavengers, until finally being dumped in a mass grave [10]. The whole point of crucifixion was to make an example of the victims. However, according to the Gospels, his remains received highly unusual treatment. A member of the Sanhedrin called Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus, was given permission by Pilate to take Jesus’s body and place it in Joseph’s own tomb.

There’s no way of knowing whether the real Jesus was entombed. Nor can we know what happened afterwards. Even the gospels don’t agree. After three days Mary Magdelene and some other women (who they were depends on which Gospel you read) visit Jesus’s tomb and find it empty. In Matthew, an angel of the Lord descends, rolls back the stone and sits on it. In Mark, the women find the stone already rolled back and a man in white is sitting inside. In Luke, they find the stone rolled aside and two men appear in dazzling apparel. In John, Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled aside, runs to fetch Simon Peter and another disciple, who find only linen in the tomb, then Mary stands weeping outside and two angels appear to her, then Jesus appears. If God can’t help the writers of his holy books get their facts straight, there is little chance for the historian.

After the empty tomb is discovered, Jesus makes a series of appearances to his disciples, until forty days later he is “carried up” into heaven.

Maybe Jesus’s body was taken from the tomb by his enemies or by random grave robbers; or the women went to the wrong tomb; or the women saw him dumped in an unmarked grave and couldn’t find it again; or the followers of Jesus were lying for a perceived greater good; or, as Ehrman suggests, some of them had visions or hallucinations of Jesus and sincerely thought he had appeared to them. Maybe Jesus found a way to avoid the cross. There is a tradition in Syriac Christianity that Jesus had a twin brother, who was mistaken for him. All of these possibilities are unsatisfying, but real events are often unsatisfying, and all of these options are more plausible than what could not have happened, i.e. that Jesus was raised from the dead by an omnipotent Yahweh.

It is impossible for anyone to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. The notion goes against everything we know about how the world works, and most Marxists would not accept it. Our main sources for Jesus’s resurrection are the Gospels, but they are not by eyewitnesses, or even by contemporaries; Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, but that still means our earliest account of the resurrection dates to twenty years after the event. The eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life and death were Aramaic-speaking illiterate peasants, not the educated Greek-speakers who wrote the New Testament.

Jesus’s followers themselves seem to have been genuinely convinced of the resurrection, because they were prepared to repeat their message on pain of beating, stoning and crucifixion. It was one of Christianity’s very first tenets of faith. Of course, just because early Christians were prepared to die in the name of the Resurrection doesn’t mean it happened – people believe all sorts of strange things.

Whatever brought about the story, it probably made the difference between Jesus’s movement dissipating as so many others had, and launching a new religion.

The Christians claimed that Jesus had been resurrected – not only in ‘spirit’ but actually his physical body – and that this confirmed him as the messiah. This was an innovation, with no precedent in Judaism. When Jesus says “it is written that the messiah would suffer and rise again on the third day” (Luke 24:44-46), it was not “written” in the Hebrew Bible. There are various views in the Hebrew Bible about who and what the messiah would be: a priest, a warrior king, a judge sent by heaven. There is however no prophecy about the messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection. For the Jews, if you got killed without liberating their people, you weren’t the messiah. But Jesus’s followers were peasants, fishermen and farmers, not scholars of scripture, so they were unhampered by religious precedent. To win support, they only needed to preach their new ideology with confidence and zeal. What began as a sect within Judaism was becoming an entirely new religion. The early Christians believed Jesus was the messiah, but also believed he was crucified, so rather than abandon their ideology they developed the novel notion of a crucified messiah. (They did not yet believe, incidentally, that Jesus of Nazareth was God. That claim, which is blasphemy in Judaism, was argued about for many years before orthodoxies were established.) That notion drew a line under the historical Jesus and launched him as the Christ.


The New Testament may be fine literature, in correct Greek, and spiritually treasured by millions, but for the historian there are too many discrepancies – some of them very significant – for us to declare it a reliable document. It almost certainly contains nuggets of historically correct information, which scholars can try to extract. There is no good reason to doubt that Jesus lived, or that his hometown was Nazareth, or that he was crucified on the watch of Pontius Pilate for being a rebel. But the New Testament cannot be entirely true. To take one example, in Mark we are told Jesus died on the day after the Passover meal was eaten. In John, he dies the day before the Passover meal was eaten. It cannot have happened both ways.

The Gospel writers wrote different accounts because they were building different Christologies, i.e. theories of Jesus, and were more interested in spiritual ‘truths’ than in facts as moderns understand them. But if this explains the discrepancies from a symbolic or theological point of view, it does not help the historian. If the Gospels can’t agree on such basic historical questions as what day Jesus died on, why should we trust their reports of his teachings? Why should we consider them spiritually reliable, when as we shall see, they cannot agree on how to interpret Jesus’s life? Especially given the long gap between Jesus speaking his ideas and their being written down, and the unreliability of the oral dissemination that came inbetween? But that is another question.

The historical Jesus, as far as we can put together a picture of him, was an illiterate Galilean peasant labourer, who preached that caring for other people was more important than the letter of the Jewish law, daringly included women in his inner circle, agitated fiercely on behalf of the poor, built a nationalist movement, challenged the ruling class, and was executed by the Romans for sedition. As a Jewish revolutionary leader of the oppressed poor it is incredible that he should now serve as a figurehead for the white Republican right in the US.

[1] Josephus, Book 18, Chapter 3 of Antiquities of the Jews (c.94 CE). (Based on the translation of Louis H. Feldman, Loeb Classical Library.)
[2] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (2012).
[3] Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the New Testament and in later Roman histories, but his historicity is concretely attested by the so-called Pilate Stone.
[4] Luke’s readers, who were still living under the Romans, would have known the story was ridiculous, but that would not have troubled them because they did not share modern attitudes regarding historical fact.
[5] According to Matthew 13:55 he was the son of a tekton.
[6] ‘James’ is a later, Westernised version of his real name, which was Jacob. Similarly,
John is our version of the Hebrew Yochanan.
[7] The need for people to have sex before they can conceive a child has caused Christianity numerous problems. Perpetual virginity is the Catholic Church’s way of freeing Jesus’s mother from the ‘taint’ of the sin of sex: only as a sexless woman was Mary acceptable as a female role model. But there is no mention of the virgin birth in the New Testament outside the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The Immaculate Conception is the Roman Catholic doctrine that Jesus’ mother Mary was conceived free of original sin. This doctrine, which does not appear in the Bible and is a later invention, is often confused with the miraculous birth of Jesus which did not require sexual intercourse, as reported in the gospels Luke and Matthew.
[8] Reza Aslan, Zealot (2013).
[9] You sometimes see this abbreviated from the Latin as ‘INRI’: ‘Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’.
[10] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (2014).

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The New Testament

With an estimated 2.2 billion followers, Christianity is the biggest religion in the world. It is also one of the more confusing.

We call its dominant figure Jesus, but his real name was Yeshua – translated from Hebrew (Yeshua) to Greek (Iēsous) to English (Jesus) [1]. Our Gregorian calendar assumes he was born in 1 CE [2], when the scholarly estimate tends to 6–4 BCE. Jesus’ mother is widely venerated as a perpetual virgin, except that she gave birth to several other non-divine sons and daughters. Two of the gospels claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem, when it was well-known he was from Nazareth. One of the most important dates in the Christian calendar, Christmas, is in my culture a commercialised and unreligious festival of turkey dinners, giftwrapped presents, mince pies, tinsel, and a fairytale about a very unbiblical old man popularised by Coca Cola; the date, 25 December, is widely understood to be a rebranding of the pagan winter solstice, adopted by Christianity purely for convenience as late as the fourth century, but believers celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday anyway. Christianity’s holy book, the New Testament, begins by telling Jesus’s life story in four different versions that contradict one another. His execution is traditionally blamed on the Jews, but only the Romans could authorise executions. After he dies, Jesus comes back to life, but instead of achieving something dramatic, like liberating the Holy Land, he just visits a few of his followers then disappears into heaven, leaving everyone to argue about what it could all mean. (Twenty centuries later, they still can’t agree.)

The New Testament, too, is a strange affair. In some places it tells Christians to respect the Mosaic law of the Hebrew Bible; in others, it tells them not to. It is widely assumed by Christians and lay people alike that the four Gospels were written by disciples of those names who knew Jesus personally, whereas scholars know they date from at least forty years after he died, and were not written by eye-witnesses. In fact, as the scholar of religion Reza Aslan puts it, “practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth… was written by people who… never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.” [3] The writers of the first Christian texts probably depended upon sayings preserved and circulated via the oral tradition, a notoriously unreliable system.

The New Testament is only the beginning of Christian doctrine. Lots of fundamental Christian ideas and symbols don’t appear in it, sometimes dating to hundreds of years after the canon was sealed. One can argue for example that the Holy Trinity is theologically implied in the New Testament, but it is never mentioned. Peter’s founding of the Church in Rome, and his upside-down crucifixion, are only traditions. Surprisingly, there is very little discussion of the afterlife. Christians generally assume that after a person dies, their spirit survives in a heavenly paradise (or hell for the ungodly), but the immortality of the ‘soul’ and its survival after death in another, ‘higher’ realm comes from the philosophy of the heathen Plato. There are many Christian traditions very popular in art, such as the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian [4], that post-date the New Testament.

One of the challenges of early Christianity was to try and form a consistent body of belief from a diverse range of ideologies. Early Christian groups were nothing like modern church congregations. It took hundreds of years for the Western and Eastern Churches to each develop a relative consensus on exactly who or what Jesus was, and how Christianity should function, only for this to be shredded in the Renaissance by the rising bourgeoisie – the Reformation launched a new phase of argument and division. What we have is a tension between 1) the historical Jesus, 2) the texts of the New Testament – and other texts that after a long process were officially excluded from it – and 3) two thousand years of subsequent traditions, disputes and innovations. Works of art weave in-between the turbulent landscape of these forces.

Christians regard the New Testament as scripture (holy writing): for them, to varying extents, it is the sacred word of God. For Marxists, the New Testament is not scripture – it is a fascinating and contradictory product of human culture. Marxists won’t accept the supernatural without evidence, which has never been forthcoming; we don’t approach the New Testament looking for divine truth. However, we must also try not to blunder in as atheists determined to reject everything in it as preposterous ‘opium’.[5] It was not intended to be a science manual, or for every verse to be taken literally, and in the philosophy of Jesus we see an ancient-world prefiguring of some of the ideas of socialism.

Whatever your standpoint on religion, the New Testament is one of the most important and most influential works of literature ever written. Over the last 2000 years Christianity has perhaps exerted more influence on art (and not only in the West) than any other ideology. The next few articles will examine some questions touching on this phenomenon, and try to understand how a little Jewish sect became such a force in world culture.

[1] ‘Jesus’ and ‘Joshua’ are the same Hebrew name, except the latter is translated from Hebrew to English rather than from Greek to English. 
[2] The calendar’s creator, Dionysius Exiguus, never stated precisely when he thought Jesus was born, or how he made his calculation. For example, Jesus might have been conceived in 1 BCE but born in 1 CE. 
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot (2013). 
[4] The very concept of a ‘saint’ post-dates the New Testament. According to legend, Sebastian was killed on the orders of Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century CE. Although he is traditionally depicted pierced by arrows, he survived that ordeal – his death actually came later from a beating. 
[5] Although I think religious faith is superstitious nonsense, it lies outside the bounds of historical study, and I won’t be wasting any time trying to debunk religion as such.