By Douglas Anele
Another English historian, Prof. Arnold Toynbee, in his book Mankind and Mother Earth states that the oldest surviving accounts of Jesus were written by devotees who already believed that, like the Pharaohs, Jesus had no human father but was begotten through his mother by a God, Yahweh. However, he accepts that there was a historical Jesus, an orthodox Jew whose “geographical horizon was limited to the Palestinian Jewry. When he sent his disciples on a missionary expedition, he instructed them to address themselves to Jews.” Toynbee belongs squarely to the group of scholars who think that there was a Jewish religious teacher whose life, teachings and ultimate fate have been obscured by thick fog of mythologies derived from Mediterranean cultures in the dying years of the Roman Empire.
Some writers approach the question of the historicity of Jesus by identifying the conflicting accounts in the New Testament, thereby raising doubts about their veracity. For example, Michael Biagent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, affirm that although according to popular tradition the origin and birth of Jesus are well known, the gospels on which that tradition is based are considerably vague and inconsistent with one another. Only Matthew and Luke contain details about Jesus’ origins and birth, but their narratives contradict each other.
The genealogies of Jesus in the two books are so discordant that one can justifiably conclude that they were referring to two different individuals. Matthew, for instance, claims that Jesus was an aristocrat, probably a legitimate claimant to the kingship of Israel through the Davidic line from Solomon. Luke, on the other hand, informs that Jesus’ family, who are descendants of David, was of somewhat less exalted stock; and through Mark’s account the legend of a poor carpenter was invented. According to Biagent et al, the discrepancies concerning Jesus are not limited to his ancestry and genealogy. In the gospel of Luke, the family of Jesus lived in Nazareth from where they went for a census in Bethlehem where he was born in the poor and humble surroundings of a manger. But historians believe that the census referred to above never happened. Luke’s account is contradicted by that of Matthew, which suggests that his family had been well-to-do all along, and that Jesus himself was born in a house. Also in Matthew, Herod’s persecution of the innocents compelled the family to flee to Egypt; it was only after they returned that they began to reside in Nazareth.
The conflicting accounts indentified in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail cover the entire gamut of Jesus’ activities, particularly his trial, crucifixion and resurrection, such that for the authors “the gospels can only be accepted as a highly questionable authority, and certainly not as definitive. They do not represent the perfect word of God; or, if they do, God’s words have been very liberally censored, edited, revised, glossed and rewritten by human hands.” An important point often neglected by Christian apologists is that the Holy Bible is largely an arbitrary selection of works, and could have contained more books that it actually does. For the New Testament particularly, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 A.D. compiled a list of works to be included in it, which was ratified by the Church Council of Hippo in 393 and again by the Council of Carthage in 397.
The conclave of clerics that decided which available material should be incorporated into the New Testament and which should be suppressed were not guided by the principles of historical accuracy and logical felicity. On the contrary, they were men (not a single woman was involved) with a religious agenda and obsessed with projecting a definite religious worldview and winning converts for the fledgling religion, Christianity. Moreover, neither they nor the compilers of the gospels foresaw that their conviction in the imminence of the Second Coming was completely wrong. Thus, it is not surprising that the gospels contain fabrications and fictions contrived to project an ordinary Jewish rabbi in an entirely different light. Nevertheless, they contain some nuggets of historical information. It is pure exaggeration to see them, as Christians are wont to do, as inspired words of God, that is, as containing eternal and immutable truths. Like historical documents such as the epics of Homer, the Dead Sea scrolls and so on, they are, in the words of Biagent et al, “products of a very specific place, a very specific time, a very specific people and very specific historical factors.”
Alfred Reynolds, in Jesus versus Christianity, constructs a plausible narrative about Jesus devoid of mythology. According to him, Jesus was brought up according to the culture of his Jewish people, although “we know nothing at all about [his] childhood and adolescence.” Jesus embarked on missionary activities over a large part of Jewish lands with his twelve disciples. His ministry ended abruptly when he was denounced by his enemies from the Jewish ecclesiastical establishment to the Roman authorities. He was condemned to death as a rebel and pretender to the Jewish throne. After his death by crucifixion, one of the most painful forms of execution employed by Romans to punish political offenders, something strange happened. Gradually, Jesus was transformed first “into Lord, Messenger and mouthpiece of God, and then into God himself.” Of course, there is nowhere in the New Testament where Jesus explicitly and unequivocally equated himself with God in the ontological sense.
It is amusing when some Christians try to explain away the fabrications, myths and legends that populate the gospels’ stories about Jesus with the argument that they were primarily intended for religious and evocative purposes, not as actual historical accounts. The dishonest verbal acrobatics readily deployed to defend religion are deplorable because they obscure the intellectual vacuity and irrationality of religious beliefs. No one who reads the gospels dispassionately would fail to notice that they were intended to be understood as trustworthy factual accounts of actual events. Some of the passages may be evocative and poetic; but the primary aim is to convey information about real events in the real world.
Therefore, Christians cannot, as a matter of simple logic, have it both ways. Either they admit that the gospels present actual events, in which case they have to explain the remarkable similarities between the stories of Jesus and ancient mythologies embodying Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman humanoid divinities. On the other hand, if the apologists insist on the evocative interpretation, they must allow the possibility that the Jesus narratives have the same epistemological and ontological status as the myths of the virgin birth, death and resurrection of Dionysos, Adonis, Mithras and other humanlike Gods that populated ancient Mediterranean world. The way I see it, there probably lived between 4 B.C. and 29 A.D. an itinerant Jewish religious teacher whose birth, life, teachings and eventual demise were blended with the prevailing mythologies in and around ancient Palestine to fabricate the Jesus character we encounter in the New Testament.
But then, how can one rationally explain the unsurpassed spiritual influence of the largely obscure peripatetic Jewish preacher on human history through Christianity, although there are good reasons for believing that he was not the founder of that religion? First, a unique blend of socio-cultural, economic and political factors was at play here, since the gospels originated from a recognisable and concrete reality. Palestine, by the time Jesus purportedly lived and when the gospels were compiled, was a hotbed of political turmoil, social oppression, civic discontent, relentless persecution, and intermittent rebellion. In addition, the atmosphere was suffused with recurrent tantalising dreams, hopes and aspiration that a rightful king would emerge; a spiritual and secular leader who would liberate his people from servitude and oppression. Although the political aspiration was devastated brutally by the Romans during the two major revolts in Judea – A.D. 66 to 74 and 132 t0 135 – its religious component was perpetuated by the gospels and given renewed vigor by the fledgling religion that bears his contrived name. Second, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion provides an interesting explanation of religion in general which applies perfectly to the specific case we are discussing. Approaching religion from a Darwinian perspective, Dawkins argues that although religion does not confer direct survival value on believers, it is the by-product of something else that does.
Yet, any of the rules may be wrong or inapplicable in novel situations. As Dawkins correctly argues, the flip side of unquestioning obedience is slavish gullibility. It follows that the unprecedented influence of the gospels and religion generally is partly attributable to intellectual viruses generated by the tendency of dogmatically believing certain propositions to be true whether or not there is evidence for accepting them. Think about it! Concluded.