About the existence of Jesus

The existence of Jesus is an affirmation of faith, not of history

This book is available here. First publishing in French in 2008 and 2016.

 

 

To John P. Meier.

If he had not written A marginal Jew, the writing of An Invention called Jesus would not have been possible. Hopefully he will find time to respond to the objections that I have developed in the following pages.

Introduction

The fact that Jesus existed is a well-known fact. A well-known fact is by definition an opinion accepted without discussion and without anyone thinking to ask why it should be accurate.

The fact that the earth is flat used to be a well-known fact.

Of course, all well-known facts are not necessarily false, but it is good to try and verify them.

The documents

There are not any non-Christian documents that provide us with a direct witness account of Jesus, and this is the subject of chapter 1. All that we know about Jesus comes from Christian texts and essentially from the four Gospels. Any opinion about Jesus’ existence is therefore based on an assessment of the credibility of the Gospels.

We shall find that this credibility is very weak. If the Gospels are presented as narratives of a story that actually happened, an examination of them, even a superficial one, will show that they tell implausible stories, that these various accounts contradict one another, that theology, symbols and references to the Bible are clearly given preference over any other consideration. In short, that the authors of the Gospels attach little importance to the accuracy of what they say.

Why was Jesus invented?

Why was Jesus invented? We cannot understand why. We fail to understand why because the story of Jesus emerged from an entirely different culture to our own and was placed in a very specific historical context. Once all this has been explored, Jesus as an invention becomes much less astonishing than it seems.

From the 2nd century BC, Palestinian Judaism, which for over three centuries had existed without too many problems, was confronted with Greek and then Roman cultures. This was followed by a series of obstacles and persecutions (see Appendix 1, The Historical Context, page 154) that Palestinian Jews faced with a fierce determination to preserve their religion. Ever since the prohibition of observing Jewish rites, on pain of death, from 167 BC until the final defeat against the Romans in AD 135, a cycle of oppression and triumph emerged.

These ordeals resulted in an abundance of literature in which hope was the main theme. Hope for the forthcoming liberation of the Jews, hope for the salvation of Israel and its triumph over the ungodly oppressors. We can quote, as an example, a prophecy from the Book of Daniel:[1]

“the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever”. Book of Daniel, chapter 2, verse 44.

The Book of Daniel is the first in a long line of Jewish religious writings meditating on the same unfathomable mystery: why does Israel suffer while the ungodly prosper? The answer offered up is that, very shortly, salvation will appear in the form of a more or less divine character, often called the Messiah or Christ. The Messiah will annihilate the enemies of Israel, and the righteous will enjoy an era of peace and eternal prosperity.

Within this vast theologico-literary movement authors could be found, who were also Jewish and just as religious as their predecessors, who had set about renewing the genre. For them as for other Jews, Israel’s salvation was imminent, but for them it was necessary to wait, not for the coming of the Messiah, but for his return. The Messiah had already come; some Jews had believed in him while others had not recognized him at all and even had him crucified by the Romans. This crucified Messiah was called Jesus. The writings that tell his story are the Gospels.

The thesis of this book, based on the study of the Christian texts, is that Jesus was one of the avatars of Jewish speculation regarding the Messiah and that Jesus was invented for theological reasons.

The scholars’ opinion

Scholars have produced admirable works on the Christian texts, replete with erudition and intelligence. Considering that a job well-done should not be redone, I have drawn on these without compunction. Thus the documentation used in this book is mainly taken from the Bible and other ancient texts, as well as from renowned Christian scholars teaching in Catholic and Protestant universities.

We shall find, however, that when these scholars approach the problem of the authenticity of the stories about Jesus, those cannot be recognized: rigorous reasoning disappears in favour of weak and baffling arguments.[2]

To those who may be surprised by this, I offer an explanation: many scholars, often Catholic priests, are believers, and the research as well as the training of researchers are frequently overseen by religious institutions. Without being overly suspicious, I think there may well be a conflict of interests: there are probably things that a researcher would have no interest in voicing, at least if they are mindful of their own faith and / or their employer and / or their career.

Why one more book?

Mythicism

The challenging of the existence of Jesus usually involves two stages: destruction and construction.

The destruction is easy: the story of Jesus is implausible, the four Gospels contradict each other, their authors being seemingly much more interested in theology than in historical facts, etc.

This does not suffice. To convince us that Jesus is a fictitious character, it must also be said why he was invented. And this is where I clearly diverge from mythicist authors.

Mythicism usally considers Jesus as a character invented at a later stage (2nd century or after) from pagan myths (Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Persian, etc.).

To me, this theory seems a little dubious for two reasons.

– The Gospels are obviously much closer to Judaism than to pagan myths. [3]

– It seems difficult to date the Gospels at such a late period.[4]

I see Jesus as a character invented in the 1st century by Jews drawing mainly on the Jewish tradition. This seems to be much more documented and convincing. You will have a brief overview of this in the following introduction. You will also be able to observe this throughout this book.

The scholars

I am forced to the conclusion that most of the mythicist authors almost completely ignore the contemporary specialists who have studied the historical Jesus.

This is regrettable because when one disputes the usually accepted knowledge, the first thing to say is just why this knowledge is inadmissible.

I have criticized these. See the bibliography at the end of the book. See also Chapter 11, devoted to the rebuttal of the arguments of specialists favouring the existence of Jesus.

 

[1] The Book of Daniel is dated from the first half of the 2nd century BC. It is available in any Bible.

[2] Even a scholar can find it regrettable: “too often in the past vital decisions on the historicity of individual words or deeds of Jesus were made with surprisingly little argumentation […] What has struck me repeatedly is the disconcerting way in which these and other great authors would decide the weighty question of the historicity of the material in a few sentences or at times simply with an airy wave of the hand. Often, when I tested the authors’ terse pronouncement for their cogency, the arguments did not hold. And yet these arguments have been repeated from book to book and from generation to generation, mainly because of the authority of the exegetical giants being quoted. This experience convinced me that the case for or against the historicity of particular words or deeds of Jesus must be argued at length.” Meier. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 2, p. 2. 1994.

Meier proposes his own approach. We will examine it in chapter 12.

[3] Whether he existed or not, the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is a Jewish character who lived in a country populated by Jews and who conveyed a Jewish religious message. Besides, the Gospels are imbued with Jewish culture and references to Jewish literature written from before Christ. All of this is detailed in the third part of this book.

Alongside the massive influence of the Jewish tradition, we can also find traces of the religions of the Middle East, both ancient and contemporary. For example, the resurrection of Jesus at Easter can be compared to the divinities of fertility that died and then rose again in Spring, when nature was reborn.

[4] In the Gospel according to Mark (Chapter 9 verse 1) Jesus said “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power”. In other words, some of those who listened to him would witness the end of the world. In the Gospels, Jesus is always right, he is never mistaken. So these words by Jesus were therefore not invented when all of his contemporaries had died. The Gospel according to Mark cannot date from the end of the 2nd century.

We find the same words by Jesus in Matthew 16: 28 and in Luke 9: 27.

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