This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time and it’s been on my list of subjects to write about, but so far I haven’t managed to get round to it. I’ve been spurred into action, however, by an excellent article on Medium.com by Benjamin Cain, which explores the history of the Mythicist debate, that is to say, the question whether or not there was a historical person Jesus at the beginning of Christianity. Several authors have argued this. One of the better–known books is The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy¹, the subtitle of which is Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?
Here is a brief summary of Cain’s position. He believes that the Mythicist argument is probably correct, but thinks that the issue is ultimately unimportant, because it is the theological, supernatural Christ that is crucial to Christian faith. Since he thinks that this can be disposed of by scientific, historical considerations, the question of whether a historical Jesus really lived or not becomes merely an academic puzzle to solve.
If such a person did exist he would therefore have been, according to Cain, at best some mostly-unknown itinerant, rebellious Jewish preacher and healer, “who issued countercultural, Hellenistic-Jewish diatribes about reversals of fortune at the imminent end of the world and who was crucified for his troubles”. His true opinion, however, is expressed more clearly here: “There is no unique residual figure of Jesus in the New Testament that bears the unmistakable mark of history”; “(he) could have been assembled over some decades by syncretism between Judaism, the Mystery cults, and Hellenistic philosophy”.
In order to solve this academic puzzle of the historicity of Jesus, Cain says that we are left “with the need to find merely the best explanation of the available evidence”.
Here are some preliminary remarks, before addressing the main question of the Historical Jesus.
Cain complains that most of the scholars who dismiss the Mythicist hypothesis are themselves Christian, therefore “if most of the scholarly community rejects Jesus mythicism, this could be due not to any theoretical fault of the latter, but to these scholars’ prior religious commitment to Christianity”. He says that some conservatives “are dogmatic apologists and are therefore inauthentic historians”.
I’m happy to agree, and can easily think of some candidates who fit his description. The same accusation, however, must surely apply to the Mythicist community. How many of them are atheists, secularists, and adopt a ‘scientific’ worldview? If you start from such a position, the very least that can be said is that your preconceptions might occasionally cloud your judgment. (I’m trying to be as polite as possible here.)
Cain is undoubtedly hostile to Christianity. He describes it as “the least tenable of the major religions”, and says that there are so many problems that it is hard “to decide which are the most fundamental, damaging, or embarrassing to a religion like Christianity”. (This is a quote from an earlier article of his.)
I’m sure he would argue, of course, that his hostility is reasonable and well founded. My main grievance is that he dismisses the theological, supernatural Christ on principle, and he is quite insistent about it. This is the strongest of several similar statements: “We must content ourselves with searching for what’s plausible, whereby we swiftly eliminate the theological Christ, that is, the New Testament’s full-throated picture of Jesus”. We might reasonably respond, who has the right to decide what is plausible? Should we hand over this responsibility to Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, for example, or even to Cain himself? We know in advance what answer we would get.
In any investigation or inquiry, nothing should be discounted on principle. Cain would seem to be starting from a biassed position, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Christian scholars of whom he disapproves. He thinks that the historical Jesus can only be the limited figure as described above, because he doesn’t believe in the possibility of a supernatural Christ, however we understand such a figure.
I can readily agree with him that the problems with Christianity are legion, especially that its followers take literally what are almost certainly mythological features, and that a complete picture of its origins is something of an impenetrable mystery. However, his purpose seems to be to deconstruct Christianity in order to discredit it and, I assume, to be rid of it. While starting from similar beliefs as him about Christianity as we know it, my purpose is to deconstruct Christianity in order to revive it, rejuvenate it. If we can gradually peel away the layers of propaganda, disinformation, dodgy theology, editing of texts, and political interference, we might find a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price.
Now I’ll turn to the main issue at hand, the question of the Historical Jesus. When addressing such a difficult question, it is essential to gather as much relevant information as possible. Mythicists tend to make a good case when read in isolation on their own terms, but often miss out some important information which would contradict their case. For example, they focus upon, and are obsessed with the question, did a human being Jesus exist? It is possible to make a reasonably convincing case that he didn’t, as many have done. Has all the relevant information been taken into account, however? If Jesus didn’t exist, should we therefore assume that the gospel accounts are a complete fiction? Would that mean that Mary Magdalene never existed, that Jesus’s brother James and his other relatives mentioned never existed? And if it could be shown that they did exist, would that mean that a Jesus-figure existed also?
Cain says that we “need to find merely the best explanation of the available evidence”, but he does not even take into account all the information in the gospels, which are our primary source. (I assume he must have done, but I sometimes wondered, while reading his article, whether he has ever read them.) He thinks that Jesus was, at best, an unknown itinerant Jewish preacher, but that actually there was no single individual figure. The gospels frequently say, however, that Jesus was seen as the Jewish Messiah, descended from King David, therefore heir to the throne of Israel (if they could only get rid of those pesky Romans). Cain may not believe that such a person ever existed, but the very least that could be said is that, if he did, then he would be historical, neither theological nor supernatural. Cain should therefore address this issue, not ignore it.
This suggestion immediately creates huge problems for Christianity. The gospels present Jesus as a promoter of love, peace, and forgiving one’s enemies. If he had a claim to the throne, and wanted to free the Jews from Roman rule, perhaps he was more militant, more warrior-like. Various authors have argued this.
There are some tantalising clues in the gospels that this might indeed be the case. Firstly, crucifixion was a Roman punishment for political rebels, whereas Jesus was accused of blasphemy, so should have been stoned to death, according to Jewish law. It’s worth noting therefore that, according to Matthew (27.29), following Mark, the soldiers mocked Jesus, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!”, so they presumably did not think he was being executed for blasphemy. This is made even clearer when they put a sign above his head with “the charge against him”, not blasphemy, rather “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27.37). They were saying implicitly, look what happens to those who rebel against Roman rule.
This puts the entry into Jerusalem a week earlier into a completely different light. Was he arriving in order to announce triumphantly his claim to the throne? That is what the crowd seems to think, since they shout “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (21.9).
The first thing that Jesus does after arriving is to make a great nuisance of himself by overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, an obvious act of defiance against the status quo. This would surely have attracted the attention of the authorities, and was presumably intended to identify Jesus as a trouble-maker.
Secondly, there is a bizarre sentence in Mark’s gospel (15.7): “Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection”. What insurrection? There has been no mention of an insurrection so far, yet Mark seems to expect, if not us, his readers at the time to know what he is talking about.
There are other significant details. If you were to read the name Simon Zelotes in the Bible, you would probably think it was a first name and surname, much like your own. It means, however, Simon the Zealot, and the Zealots were a group of militant, revolutionary freedom fighters. They are not mentioned in the gospels, at least not directly.
It would seem, however, that Jesus chose some of them as his apostles. The more well-known one is Judas Iscariot. This apparently derives from Judas the Sicarii, which is another term for Zealot, possibly an élite group of assassins within their ranks. The less well-known one is Simon. The King James Bible has ‘Simon called Zelotes’, which we might assume is an appellation. Luke (6.15) does not bother with this, and says straightforwardly ‘Simon who was called the Zealot’, thus revealing where his sympathies lay. (One wonders why he was called the Zealot when there were so many of them.) In Matthew and Mark he is called Simon the Cananaean. Again we moderns have no idea what this means. It derives from the Greek version of Mark where Simon is called Kananaios, which is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word for Zealot. Perhaps in order to play down his significance, we are told almost nothing about him, and he has no significant role in the gospel accounts.
It’s also worth noting that the two men crucified with Jesus are explicitly described as lestoi, which is the Roman word for Zealots².
When the authorities come to arrest Jesus, in the synoptics one of his followers is said to be carrying a sword, and without hesitation uses it to cut off the ear of the slave of the High Priest. In John this person is identified as Simon Peter. We might wonder whether he had ever listened to his master’s teachings, except that, according to Luke, Jesus had instructed his followers to buy swords (not of course to use them, heaven forbid, but in order to fulfil scripture!).
All this seems reasonably convincing, but raises more questions. Is there any Roman record of a Jewish rebellion around the relevant time? I have never read any biblical scholar or historian referring to one. Perhaps it was a relatively easy one to quash, so they did not think it important enough to record. As several scholars have pointed out, life in Palestine at this time was nothing like what we find in the gospels; it was a hotbed of anger and rebelliousness against the Romans. Perhaps, therefore, dealing with an insurrection in Jesus’s name would have been nothing special, a normal day at the office for them, not even worth the trouble of recording.
This leads to the next problem with this understanding of Jesus; how on earth did he think he would be able to overcome the might of the Romans? Did he have a significant army? Was he expecting divine intervention? The Jews believed that they were God’s chosen people, and did tend to think, often mistakenly, that Yahweh would be on their side, and help them to defeat their enemies.
Highly relevant, therefore, is chapter 10 in Matthew, where Jesus sends out his apostles to preach. The most relevant verses are 7, “As you go, proclaim the good news. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ ”, and 23, “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes”. This suggests that Jesus was expecting his prophecies, and therefore his mission, to be fulfilled not merely within his lifetime, but imminently. He also was expecting divine intervention (the Son of Man) to help him achieve this. As things turned out, it would seem that he was badly mistaken. It can be argued, however, that he was not completely certain that he would succeed, because he seemed to have a back-up plan, in order to avoid death on the cross, if things went wrong. (It is possible to argue, reading between the lines, especially in John’s Gospel, that Jesus, with the help of his closest allies, planned to survive, and did indeed survive the crucifixion. I’ve written an article about this.) Why would the author go to so much trouble to leave such clues, if the account were not historical? It is one of the Mythicists’ favourite arguments that there were many pagan saviour gods who were crucified and then resurrected. (See for example, Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours³.) Jesus would surely have been the first and only one who actually defied death by surviving the crucifixion, which suggests that the story might be true.
I’ll now investigate whether the people I mentioned above really existed, starting with the one with the least historical evidence, Mary Magdalene. She may well have been Jesus’s wife, even though the gospel accounts do not say this explicitly. I’ve written three earlier Medium articles about this, arguing, I believe convincingly, that the gospel accounts are concealing this information but that, reading between the lines, one can deduce that she was married to Jesus. (If interested in the details of this question, click here, here, and here.) It would be extraordinary if the gospel writers went to such trouble to conceal the marriage, while leaving clues, if Jesus and Mary were not real people in the first place.
There are legends that she fled to Southern France, possibly with their child, and landed at or near Marseilles. This may of course be a fictional or ‘mythical’ story. However, I believe that it is a historical fact that a cult of Mary Magdalene appeared in Southern France. Why would that be, if she never existed and never arrived there? Furthermore, there must have been something very special about her, because people would not normally elevate to cult status a foreign refugee arriving in a boat. A possible explanation would be that there were Jewish communities already established there, who might have known who she was.
I’ll turn now to a figure with convincing evidence for his existence, thus much harder, if not impossible to explain away, Jesus’s brother James.
It is a cliché of Mythicist literature to say, as Cain does, that Paul is “strangely silent”, or “says barely a single word”, about the Historical Jesus. This is taken to be evidence that no such person as Jesus existed. However, as everyone knows, Paul never met Jesus prior to the crucifixion, and says that he only met the leading disciples three years after his conversion, since which time he had been completely preoccupied with what Cain would call the supernatural Christ. So why would we expect him to say anything significant about the life of Jesus? What could he know of any importance?
He may say “barely a single word”. What he does say, however, is extraordinary in the context of the Mythicist debate, and Christianity in general. Firstly, he says that God’s Son was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). (Cain fails to mention this.) He is therefore acknowledging the reality of the bloodline as stated in the gospels — Jesus is not merely Cain’s insignificant itinerant preacher. Paul also appears to be denying the Virgin Birth story, since he stresses “according to the flesh”. (He might not even be aware of it, since he was writing in advance of Matthew and Luke who, scholars assume, have added this episode in order to promote the supernatural Christ idea. The fact that he stresses it may be an indication that such stories were beginning to circulate.)
Secondly, and even more importantly, Paul says that James is Jesus’s brother.
Since, as Cain says, these texts have “passed through the hands of Christian copyists who could have sanitized them with ecumenical interpolations and redactions”, and nevertheless survived intact, it is reasonable to conclude that these are Paul’s authentic words.
I believe it is an undisputed historical fact that James was the Head of the Jerusalem Church in the period following Jesus’s death (if he did indeed die). There is a lot of non-biblical source material about him, so much that the scholar Robert Eisenman has managed to write a book almost 1,000 pages long about him and his life⁴.
Eisenman agrees with Cain and myself that the facts about Jesus “are shrouded in mystery and overwhelmed by a veneer of retrospective theology and polemics that frustrates any attempt to get at the real events underlying them” (Pxxiv). However, “extra-biblical sources contain more reliable information about James than about Jesus” (Pxxi). The gospels barely mention him, although he does eventually turn up in Acts. James was “systematically downplayed or written out of the tradition” (Pxix). “This was necessary because of the developing doctrine of the supernatural Christ and the stories about his miraculous birth” (Pxx).
That is, of course, how the Mythicist argument began. However, as Eisenman says: “In the original accounts — the Gospels as they have come down to us, Paul’s letters, and Josephus — no embarrassment whatsoever is evinced about this relationship with Jesus, and James is designated straightforwardly and without qualification as Jesus’ brother”. There is no attempt “to depreciate or diminish this relationship” (Pxxix).
Intriguing, therefore, is one reference in the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’ ”⁵. This suggests that Jesus was, at the very least, prominent in the Jerusalem Church, and even more likely its leader. Eisenman says that it is “clear that James was the true heir and successor of his more famous brother Jesus” (Pxxii).
There were two traditions relating to Messiahship in Judaism, one a priest/king partnership, in which case James would seem to be the priest and Jesus the king, and a second of a one person priest-king, in which case this would seem to be Jesus with James as his immediate successor.
As with the militancy issue above, this becomes a very disturbing problem for the Christian Church, because “the Movement led by James… will be shown to have been something quite different from the Christianity we are now familiar with” (Pxxi). “The person of James is almost diametrically opposed to the Jesus of Scripture… (who is) anti-nationalist, cosmopolitan, antinomian — that is, against the direct application of Jewish Law — and accepting of foreigners and other persons of perceived impurities, (whereas) the Historical James will turn out to be zealous for the Law, xenophobic, rejecting of foreigners and polluted persons generally, and apocalyptic” (Pxxxiii).
So, if James was as described by Eisenman, and succeeded Jesus as Head of the Church, was the Historical Jesus also zealous for the Law, xenophobic, rejecting of foreigners and polluted persons generally? He was certainly apocalyptic, if the synoptic gospels are anything to go by. That is one of the few things that scholar Bart Ehrman thinks we can say with certainty about the Historical Jesus: “Jesus appears to have been a Jewish apocalypticist anticipating the end of this present evil age within his own generation., This may not be the Jesus we have learned about in Sunday school or seen in the stained-glass window… But it does appear to be the Jesus of history”⁶.
There is one interesting passage in Matthew which has amazingly been allowed to remain by later editors, given that it seems to contradict the conventional Christian understanding of the message of Jesus. This is The Mission of the Twelve (10.5–40), referred to above, when Jesus sends out his apostles to preach, expecting the almost immediate fulfilment of his mission. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Does this sound like the version of Jesus with whom Christians are familiar, or is it closer to Eisenman’s description of James? (The text of Matthew, as we have it, describing this Mission is an incomprehensible mess, as I have discussed in this earlier article.)
The question therefore arises, where does the portrayal of Jesus as it appears in the gospels come from? It seems to be based upon Paul’s theology of the supernatural Christ. As Eisenman says: “The Christianity we are heirs to is largely the legacy of Paul and like-minded persons” (Pxxxi). This suggests that all the gospels were written by followers of Paul. This is not in itself surprising, since all scholars agree that Paul’s letters are the earliest known Christian literature, and anything which follows might well be influenced by them. It is unusual to find this spelled out directly, however, scholars preferring to say that the writers were consulting various ‘sources’. It’s also worth noting that Freedom from the Law was one of Paul’s key slogans. (There is an alternative understanding, which will be explored later in the series.)
This is therefore an appropriate place to mention the Islamic position that Jesus was not divine, merely a human prophet, that he was faithful to, perhaps zealous for, the Jewish Law, and that Paul was the ‘enemy’ who distorted Jesus’s message, which needed a further revelation to Muhammad to correct the mistake. Isn’t that interesting in the light of the above?
There is further material in the Dead Sea Scrolls which could be interpreted as supporting this viewpoint. (Modern people might ask themselves whether they would prefer to live in a society inspired by Jesus’s brother, a xenophobic Jewish nationalist, or by Paul’s ‘supernatural’ Jesus Christ.)
James would be one of the desposyni, the name reserved for the blood relatives of Jesus. They may provide the most convincing evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.
They claimed to be descended from King David and/or the high priest Aaron. The Roman occupation, however, aided and abetted by the Judean establishment, made it impossible for any of the desposyni to rise to or seize political and religious power.
They have, up to a point, been airbrushed out of history by the Catholic Church, who must have been ambivalent about their existence. On the one hand, they provided evidence that Jesus had really existed (although probably at that time the Mythicist debate had not yet started in earnest.) On the other hand, they were an inconvenience because their existence contradicted the false story of the supernatural Jesus that had been concocted.
The Roman Catholic Church had tied itself up in knots. It believed the story of the Virgin Birth as found in Matthew and Luke, when it only had to read its own ‘infallible’ scripture, i.e. the epistle of Paul quoted above, to know that this was not true. (The Virgin Birth is obviously a piece of mythology, which can be found in many other pagan saviour stories.) Then it decided that Mary was a perpetual virgin, even though the alleged divine incarnation was supposedly a one-off event, and its own gospels, which can still be read today despite various edits, said that Jesus had four brothers — James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas — and at least three sisters. (Matthew [13.56] says “all his sisters”.) The Church was therefore forced to conclude that they could not have been his real siblings, that Joseph was only his stepfather or foster father, therefore that the other brothers and unnamed sisters were only half-brothers and sisters. So we end up with a situation where Saint Jerome called the brothers cousins, and Saint Augustine said that Jesus had no father, only a mother. If only they had read their Bible, instead of the Church’s theology!
What is the historical (non-biblical) evidence for the existence of the desposyni?
In The History of the Church⁷, Eusebius quotes a letter written by Africanus, the purpose of which is to explain the discrepancies between the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke. This mentions “the Saviour’s human relations” who have kept records traced back to David (I. 7, p21 ): “Herod, who had no drop of Israelitish blood in his veins and was stung by the consciousness of his base origin, burnt the registers of their families, thinking that he would appear nobly born if no one else was able by reference to public documents to trace his line back to the patriarchs or proselytes, or to the ‘sojourners’ of mixed blood”. (Even though the Massacre of the Innocents is almost certainly an exaggeration and fictional, this sounds consistent with Matthew’s account.) The quote continues: “A few careful people had private records of their own, having either remembered the names or recovered them from copies, and took pride in preserving the memory of their aristocratic origin. These included the people mentioned above, known as Desposyni because of their relationship to the Saviour’s family”. Africanus goes on to say “This may or may not be the truth of the matter… (but) we are not in a position to suggest a better or truer one” (p22).
Eusebius (3.20) also quotes some fragments from a now lost second century text by Hegesippus:
- following the martyrdom of James, the apostles and disciples of the Lord still living assembled with “those who, humanly speaking, were kinsmen of the Lord — for most of them were still living”. They voted unanimously that James’s successor “to occupy the throne of the Jerusalem see” should be Symeon, son of the Clopas mentioned in the gospel narrative… He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus tells us that Clopas was Joseph’s brother” (III. 11, p79).
- This same Symeon later suffered martyrdom, having been charged by ‘heretics’ “with being a descendant of David and a Christian”. Also, “other descendants of one of the ‘brothers’ of the Saviour named Jude lived on into the same reign” (III. 32, p95).
- “After the capture of Jerusalem Vespasian issued an order that, to ensure that no member of the royal house should be left among the Jews, all descendants of David should be ferreted out: and that this resulted in a further widespread persecution of the Jews” (III. 12, p79).
- “There still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against, as being of David’s line, and brought by the evocatus before Domitian Caesar, who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian asked them whether they were descended from David, and they admitted it”. (Domitian reigned from 81–96 CE). Domitian let them go free because he despised “them as beneath his notice”, and “issued orders terminating the persecution of the Church. On their release they became leaders of the churches, both because they had borne testimony and because they were of the Lord’s family; and thanks to the establishment of peace they lived on into Trajan’s time” (III. 20, p81–82).
In the light of what was said about James above, it is interesting to note that, according to the Irish priest Malachi Martin⁸, in 318 a meeting took place between Pope Silvester I and the desposyni, led probably by Joses.
As we might expect, given that the Church had adopted a supernatural Jesus position, “neither Sylvester nor any of the thirty-two popes before him, nor those succeeding him, ever emphasized that there were at least three well-known and authentic lines of legitimate blood descent from Jesus’ own family”.
The demands of the desposyni at this meeting were:
- the reintroduction of the Law
- that desposyni bishops should replace the Greek Christian bishops at Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, and in Alexandria.
In other words, they were demanding a return to the Church of James. The Pope, however, “dismissed their claims and said that, from now on, the mother church was in Rome and he insisted they accept the Greek bishops to lead them”. This was the last known meeting with “the disciples who were descended from blood relatives of Jesus the Messiah”.
The question we have to ask, and Cain must answer, is why would a Roman emperor and a Pope take these people so seriously if they were not authentic? Would they have been so easily fooled by a group of con-men?
Benjamin Cain seeks the best explanation of the available evidence. Does the above qualify as conclusive proof that a historical Jesus existed? Does it bear an “unmistakable mark of history”? Possibly not; in the quest for the Historical Jesus and Christian origins, nothing ever does. So, what I have said here may be not the complete truth about Jesus, not even the best explanation, or not true at all. However, it is based upon, and consistent with, the available scriptural and historical evidence. Cain’s hypothesis is not, however, since it takes into account none of the above.
My arguments may not be conclusive, but they’re good enough for me, at least for the time being, until I see what response he makes.
So, contrary to what Cain suggests, there could well have been a single historical figure called Jesus at the time in question, and he would have been far more than an obscure itinerant preacher. If Cain disagrees with any of the above historically, he should argue the case, rather than ignore all this material. It does not follow that, just because a historical figure has been changed beyond all recognition in a fictional story, this person never existed in the first place. If there was a unique individual who effectively founded Christianity, however, on the basis of the available evidence it would seem that this figure was Paul.
1. Thorsons, 2000
2. My main source for the above is The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Arrow Books, 1996, p392
3. The Truth Seeker Company, 6th edition, 1960
4. James the Brother of Jesus, Faber & Faber 1997, my copy Watkins Publishing 2002
5. Logion 12. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson (General Editor), HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, p127
6. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, OUP, 2006, p138
7. Penguin Books, 1965, my copy 1989
8. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, which I haven’t read