At Last, a Probable Jesus
After three successive sortings, Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], and Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], it is now possible to recontextualize the biography of Jesus with some degree of historical reliability. What distinguishes this rebuilding is that it is fact-based, utilizing the modern forensic science of history, rather than being faith-based, as are just about all religions, creeds, and belief systems. That is, it is as based upon historical facts (defined by communicating and debating historians) as close to “consensually factual” as biblical criticism can come; it is not “hard” science, and will change in future as new historical and archaeological evidence emerges. (Even “hard” science is not “chiseled in stone,” as it can change in future as well, as new researched evidence emerges.) To make this recontextualization plausible, I have inserted into the historical consensus (the paragraphs in italics) my own personal “take” on what-happened-when-and-why to give the biography a flowing narrative without, hopefully, weakening rational plausibility.
To those believers and non-believers who think this whole intellectual exercise is “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” that I am losing the essence of Christianity by ignoring most of Christian theology and tenants of Christian faith, I can only remind them of the quicksand that is the epistemology of faith. If truth is purely faith-based and comes by miraculous, indemonstrable revelation, then one theology/faith cannot be shown to be more truthful than any other theology/faith; a believer can believe literally anything; one can put faith in literally anything. (See the example of the Flying Spaghetti Monster “religion,” or FSM, in Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) From the outset of my Christian experience, from my early independent thoughts on Christianity, I thought the strength of Christianity was in its historicity, not in its spirituality. The zeal of non-Christian faith is as strong as the zeal of Christian faith, but if history could be brought to bear witness to the claims of Christianity, faith in Jesus would seem to have a “leg up.” So, instead of immersing myself in Sunday School lessons on Paul’s letters, or coming up with mental or verbal personal testimonies about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins anew every Easter season (and every Sunday, for that matter), I looked into the historical case of Christianity (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]). The three sortings listed above are summaries of this personal case study, summaries that have brought me to suggest a probable, plausible story of the life of Jesus.
Studying the historical origins of Christianity is nothing short of a startling revelation in its own right. The nuances of this shocking realization varies from person to person, I’d surmise. For many who grew up in the Church who have had this surprising revelation, fewer years were probably required than the number for me. Though I do not regret all the time I spent in church pews (I learned a lot.), it is now not surprising to me why attention of congregations is not drawn toward the historical origins of not only the denomination, but not drawn especially to the historical origins of the faith itself. Congregations are drawn instead to focus upon community services and/or increasing the church membership, while being told the egregious “tall” tale that they are behaving like “the” single Church of the 1st century CE; in contrast, questions like I asked (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) lead to the ludicrous centuries-long defining of who Jesus Christ was (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]) and to the realization Christianity has very little historical reliability I originally thought it had (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]).
The third sorting (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) was made quick work thanks to Bart D. Ehrman’s recently published book How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. This work not only spelled out the contemporary consensus concerning Jesus by biblical criticism and archaeological studies, it suggested to me the “layer” metaphor and analogy, wherein each alteration and addition to Jesus’ life could be seen as an obscurantist layer painted upon the surface of a table top that represents the historical situation at the time of Jesus’ death. What the Church describes as Jesus Christ revealed in the Scriptures is actually a “trumped-up” Jesus exalted and defined well beyond anything he himself intended. In fact, Jesus was exalted during the latter half of the 1st century CE (after his death) eventually to the divine status of Son of God using the same “blueprint” that exalted another historical character, Apollonius, during the same time span (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]). The “layers” prevent us from seeing the table top; Jesus has over time been victimized by “bad press.” I am not throwing out the baby with the bath water; the baby was taken out before the watery tossing, or was never in the bath water to begin with. The reliable essence of Jesus is not in the theology of his exaltation or in faith in the theology.
The third sorting stripped all the layers above the table top down to just the original surface, a surface on which we can have some degree of historical confidence. All we find on this stripped surface is i) a trial before Pilate, ii) an execution by crucifixion, and iii) a claim Jesus rose from the dead. Now we need to work underneath the surface of the table, aware that much of the layers now stripped from above the surface had to do with Jesus’ life and ministry, but realizing there may be many layers below the table top needing to be stripped also. What remains of Jesus’ life from birth to death that has historical credibility? This posting is the answer to that question from my point of view, resulting in a believable, plausible, and probable Jesus — my recontextualization of Jesus. As in Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], I shall attempt to employ the three criteria of “stripping” that determine what biblically is reliable and what is not: 1) as in The Jefferson Bible, ignore claims that smack of fanciful hyperbole and that appeal to those of strong credulity, 2) keep matters that orthodoxy finds problematic but had to leave in so as not to be charged with incompleteness, and 3) favor that which requires fewer, rather than more, assumptions; tend to select the simple as opposed to the nuanced and/or the confusing.
(Remember, the regular text is close to historical consensus; the italic text is my personal speculation that gives, hopefully, reasonable flow among the reliable events of Jesus’ life.)
It seems to me the life of Jesus went something like……..
Jesus, obviously conceived out-of-wedlock, and born in Nazareth, had a very understanding and supportive mother in Mary. Joseph married her, saving her reputation from being tarnished even more, and together the couple had four boys and three girls as Jesus’ younger siblings. To arm Jesus against the social stigma of being a bastard, Mary doted upon him, which resulted in Jesus standing out in comparison to his brothers and sisters, as he was in comparison a precocious child.
Mary was like an early version of a “stage mom,” paying particular attention to developing self-confidence in her eldest son. She probably indulged his every inclination, giving him a sense of being “special” at a very early age. Originally intending her son to be immune from the social scarring by the label of “bastard,” she found Jesus developing into a child with an early sense of purpose — almost a prodigy of early maturity. [Incidentally, to me the only redeeming features of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ were the “flashback” moments of Mary remembering the moving and tender mother/child times she had had with her son, who was being condemned to death. Otherwise, I thought the film was anti-Semitic Hollywood hyperbole that recklessly added to scripture and stretched the limits of credulity (e.g. anyone who bled that much would not have the strength to carry a cross to Golgotha).] Perhaps his father (adoptive father?) Joseph did his part in raising Jesus as a “special” child.
To say Jesus was gifted would be an understatement; he was observant, introspective, and reflective. The closest thing he had to a formal education were the teachings he received at synagogue, conducted by rabbinic Pharisees. He became fascinated by at least two social issues playing out before him: a) the inhumanity of applied Mosaic law, especially in everyday domestic situations, and b) the prevailing apocalyptic view that God was going to intervene to deliver the Jews from the oppression of the Roman Empire. He gathered a group of followers who became his disciples, each less educated than he; he was the teacher, the Master, regardless of his relative age to each; Mary had developed his sense of worth well.
By observing the Pharisees, the local Roman officials, and the local Greek intellectuals, he mimicked their leadership skills, following his natural tendency to “stand out,” to desire to be noticed. He appealed to the less educated of his peers who also were fascinated with the uncomfortable inconsistencies of Jewish common law and with the idea that, as God’s “Chosen People,” the Jews would be relieved of their Roman masters by divine intervention. Both Jesus and his chosen twelve found it easier to walk about in critical commentary of the social ills and myopia all around them than to stay in the “binding obligations” of working responsibilities at home or in the demanding vocations in which they had found themselves; for the disciples, the audacity of the charismatic Nazarene, with whose family they were probably familiar, gave them a release from the work in front of the rest of their lives. Jesus and his disciples were very much like Socrates and his “pupils,” save Jesus was not blind; any Greek-cultured observers of a young “teacher” speaking to an attentive band in parables must have appeared pretty normal, in a Hellenistic sort of way.
Not only did Jesus discover that the vehicle of parables was an effective way to communicate with his unsophisticated and even illiterate audiences (including the disciples), he found them a great way to deflect direct attacks upon his apocalyptic agenda or upon his lessons in social mores. Parables require interpretation, which can utilize reflection in an obscurantist manner. Such reflection became in time necessary, as his apocalyptic, messianic teaching about the coming of the Kingdom of God transferred to Roman authority as potentially seditious, and his teaching of loving one’s neighbors transcendent of religious laws of conduct smacked of replacing the teachings of rabbis, Pharisees, and Sadducees with a “higher authority” of his own. Jesus and his entourage of twelve were not always received well, and Jesus’ family grew concerned for his safety (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). Jesus, the twelve, and Jesus’ message were rejected in his home town of Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6; Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 4:16-30).
If Jesus’ family members were in agreement with his teaching, that would have been emphasized in the Gospels. Showing up out of concern could have indicated the family actively encouraged him to cease his teaching and return home. And their concern was understandable, as I think Ehrman in How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is correct that there were in the first century CE three different versions of the Messiah in Jewish culture, and Jesus was linking himself with one of the three. 1) The religious-political Messiah, often called the Son of Man, would come as God’s “right-hand man” to usher in the Kingdom of God by judging all of mankind — God’s prosecutor, in other words, 2) the “Temple-centered” Messiah, or God’s chosen “high priest” who would make things right from (probably) the Temple at Jerusalem, and 3) the political Messiah, who would by Maccabeean-like rebellion literally restore the line of David as the independent kings of God’s Chosen People. Jesus was linking himself with 1), in all likelihood seeing himself as the Son of Man (Matthew 19:28). He clearly was not an official rabbi, nor Pharisee, nor Sadducee; as a non-priest, therefore, he could not be preaching a type 2) Messiah. Because of the obscurantist nature of his open-to-interpretation parables, he was most probably misinterpreted as seeing himself as a type 3) Messiah, which played a large part in his fatal condemnation. As for his teachings on moral conduct, they smacked of humane Epicurianism and Stoicism that had him calling the likes of Pharisees “vipers.” Neither synagogue nor Roman authority could be pleased with what they were hearing from Jesus.
Personally, I like to think his Golden Rule-based humanism drove his dual-themed message, instead of the messianic, apocalyptic heralding of the coming of the Kingdom driving the double-headed agenda. At first glance, the two messages seem difficult to reconcile and harmonize, but I am inclined to think he used the wide-spread notion of God’s intervention through the Son of Man as the “banner” around which to gather listeners, who were then regaled with the message of treating each other with love and respect, a not-so-bad idea even for the bloody-minded rebels wanting to throw off the yoke of Rome, if God’s judgement through the Son of Man was inevitably coming. You want to appear as kind to your own, at least, even if the blood of your enemies stains your hands doing what you believe to be ultimately God’s will. Despite his mixed messages of bringing a sword and leaving the family, his teachings emphasized peace and pacifism. Of course, this is just my opinion; perhaps Jesus lived his entire ministry without ever reconciling the two themes in his head; perhaps many turned away from his teachings because they could not see the possibility of such reconciliation.
Perhaps Jesus was emboldened by the similar ministry of John the Baptist. Perhaps Jesus was at first a follower of John’s teachings. Whatever their relationship, and regardless of whether John baptized Jesus or not, Jesus’ ministry was shaken by the beheading of John. When the tetarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had John executed over John’s moral condemnation of Herod’s taking of Herodias as his wife in about 30 CE, Jesus and his disciples tried to “lay low” for a while and keep a lower profile (Mark 6:31, Matthew 14:13, Luke 9:10). But his followers (undoubtedly joined by followers of John) would not allow this public absence; the vacuum of need left by John’s death had to be filled by Jesus, and he could not resist filling it.
The story of John the Baptist and the similarity of his and Jesus’ teachings are a great indicator that these teachings were the “talk” of many more self-motivated prophets of apocalyptic doom and/or love-over-law than John and Jesus. It is highly probable Jesus saw John’s death as God’s sign he was God’s choice to pave the way for the coming of the Kingdom; the “torch” was passed to him from John as part of God’s will; it is possible he began to believe he was destined to be the Son of Man in that Kingdom as a part of this divine sign. If such a belief came to him, whenever it came, it turned out to be fatal for Jesus.
By the time the Passover of about 33 CE came, Jesus was emboldened by his followers, his disciples, and his acquired self-perception to go to Jerusalem, the “capital” of Judea, to go to the political and religious center of the Jews and to the heart of Roman power over the Jewish state. Clearly, Jerusalem was the place where application of his dual-headed message would have the greatest, far-reaching effects. His fame had grown beyond his control, even to being an advocate for women (a revolutionary idea for that society), as personified by his close relationship with Mary Magdalene, who in effect had become his closest feminine disciple as well as the thirteenth disciple added to the original twelve. He figuratively was swept into Jerusalem by a destiny of his own making, all the time being scrutinized more and more by both Jewish and Roman authorities as his fame grew — a “dual watch” reflecting his dual message, which spawned dual suspicions of blasphemy and of subversion. Knowingly or unknowingly, he was trapped between the two “horns” of his teachings.
Despite what the Church did to expunge Mary Magdalene from the story of Jesus, I think it highly probable not only was she the closest of his disciples, they had a sexual relationship; she was the “beloved disciple,” not John. That Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was based partly upon historical evidence (2nd century CE gospels relating how Jesus taught Mary Magdalene beyond what he told the disciples, who were jealous of her) indicates her importance in Jesus’ ministry (March 2012 National Geographic). Her clear importance to the origin of Christianity is forthcoming below.
My inclination is to think Jesus could not have anticipated what was going to happen to him and his disciples in Jerusalem. He was not the only “troublemaker” attending Passover that year, given the atmosphere of religious reform and political rancor at the time. It does seem obvious to me that between the time of John’s execution and this trip to Jerusalem, he gained some sense of direction for his ministry, even if only from following the suggestions of the most vocal of his growing followers. Perhaps he believed his own “hype,” or perhaps not. Surely, he was too famous to run away and hide, even if he wanted that.
The “cleansing of the Temple” of the moneychangers (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22) was pivotal. Whether from careful, calculated planning or from a moment of uncontrolled anger, or from something in-between, Jesus suddenly acted as if he had religious and spiritual authority to bring about reform through a rebellious and revolutionary act. No amount of calmly teaching in the Temple before or thereafter, actual or added by the Gospel writers, could sooth the apparent fact he had given his detractors the excuse they sought to bring his ministry to a close. What was sold to the religious authority as blasphemous behavior in the Temple of the Lord was sold to the civil authority as disturbance of the peace at the absolutely most socially volatile time of the year (Passover). The religious Jews had their moment of “heresy” to pin upon him, and the Romans had their moment of “sedition” or “revolt” to pin upon him. He was taken into custody because of the two “horns” of his ministry. His fate was sealed.
No amount of drama added by the writers of the 4 Biblical Gospels to the time between the driving out of the moneychangers from the Temple to his arrest (e.g. The Last Supper) could rationalize his rash act at the holy site. Attempts to do so resulted in convoluted conflicts within Jesus in which he knew he was going to die for divine reasons, yet he was full of human apprehensions. Good drama, but hardly reliable history. It is more likely he, as he felt the “heat” of public exposure of the incident, placed his hopes in his actions in the Temple as being lost among many similar incidents by other “troublemakers” during the tense chaos of Passover. Had it not been for the betrayal of Judas, those hopes might have been well placed.
Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, found the betrayal of Jesus by Judas difficult to understand. I think it is easy to understand if you see Judas as a disciple who followed Jesus primarily because he believed Jesus to be a type 3) Messiah [Way after the betrayal, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke ironically fed the association of Jesus as a type 3) Messiah from the line of David by awkwardly and inconsistently listing Jesus’ ancestry; the two lists don’t agree (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38).] When Jesus showed himself not to be a political revolutionary starting a revolt against Rome, as some angry moments in Jesus’ teaching had indicated to the mind of Judas early on, but, instead, showed himself a religious reformer of some sort when he purged the Temple, that was the “last straw” for Judas. Probably reading into the obscurantist “lessons” of the parables his own signs and wishes for a political revolt, Judas, when considering the Temple incident, “snapped” and acted out against Jesus, out of anger at himself and his own years-long self-deception. How could all that time Judas not see that Jesus was a “religious nut,” and not the clever political firebrand Judas believed Judea desperately needed? Judas realized Jesus was a pie-in-the-sky guru, not a Spartacus. Because he could not forgive himself for his own shortsightedness, Judas punished Jesus for not being the Messiah in whom Judas had placed his hopes and dreams.
As I earlier mentioned, had not Judas betrayed Jesus, there may not have been an arrest at all. Judas was internally a firebrand rebel yearning for bloody revolution. However, Judas was simultaneously a natural-born follower, a hanger-on willing to invest his life around anyone who would take up the responsibilities of the dangerous causes Judas happened to believe in, because Judas did not have the fortitude to risk the danger himself; externally, Judas was also a coward. Unfortunately for Jesus, he did have the fortitude to actually do something about his petty, selfish anger, instead of slinking off into the obscurity of his disgruntlement — he betrayed Jesus to the authorities. Whether true or not, the suicide of Judas had to be the end of his story to placate the pious hounds writing the Gospels and howling for justice.
At last, the arrival at the “table top” from the bottom has come, a table top consisting only of i) a trial before Pilate, ii) an execution by crucifixion, and iii) a claim Jesus rose from the dead. Clearly, many layers like which we saw on top of the table (Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015]) needed to be stripped from the bottom to arrive at a top that looks almost the same from both directions; now, the Passion Week needs to be stripped so that the bottom view is the same as the top view.
The heart of making historical sense of i), the trial, is to understand why it was important to the Christianity being spawned near the end of the 1st century CE, decades after Jesus had died, to place the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews and not the Romans. This, despite the fact Roman authority had power and responsibility over life and death at Jerusalem at the time; the exploitation of Judea by Rome demanded nothing less. Recall the 4 Gospels were written during and just after the Jewish revolt against Rome of 62-70 CE, the one that ended with the siege at Masada. It was dangerous to speak or write ill of the winners’ (Romans’) actions at this time or at any time prior. Conversely, it was politically expedient to speak or write ill about the losers (the Jews). Moreover, despite resistance the first Christians met in the Roman Empire (Paul’s letters), spreading the Gospel of Jesus had nothing to gain by speaking ill of the Empire regarding the death of Jesus; Christians benefited from being seen at worst as neutral when it came to the Empire. This conciliatory policy toward the Romans paid huge dividends when Roman persecutions of the Christians ceased and Christianity became the state religion of the Empire under Constantine I (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]); with Constantine Christianity “crushed” other religions in the Empire like the Romans crushed the Jewish revolt of 62-70 CE.
But, complete alienation of the Jews within Christianity was not going to work for at least three reasons: First, Jesus was a Jew. What would it look like if Jesus started something that was contrary to his own people? No matter how non-human and divine Jesus became in the minds transforming and exalting him into the Christ, he was a man in a particular ethnic and cultural group, making him appealing and fascinating to both Jew and Gentile alike. Second, if Christianity was to become truly universal and embracing of all, the opportunity for Jews to convert to Christianity must always be available. Third, Jesus’ cultural origin as a Jew was so well known, any condemnation of the Jewish people by Jesus or his Jewish disciples would make the Christian movement seem traitorous to its roots; complete alienation of the Jews by Christianity would make Jesus look like a Benedict Arnold, something antisemitism of later times “conveniently” overlooked.
Therefore, the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John inserted into the Passion Week stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and sentencing castigation upon Jesus’ own people in the capital, placing the ultimate blame for Jesus’ fate upon Jewish authority in Jerusalem (the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin — the Jewish high court). Pilate, other Roman authorities, and the Roman soldiers who carried out the sentence seemed “reluctant” (Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair) to carry out the desires of Jewish authority. Yet, not all Jews in Jerusalem wanted Jesus’ blood; the story of Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin?) providing a tomb and retrieving Jesus’ body is a case in point; the tradition that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea with the body is another.
More likely, in my opinion, Pilate saw in the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus the opportunity to publicly demonstrate no toleration of disruption-leading-to-insurrection-leading-to-revolt, especially in the highly-charged atmosphere of Passover. The Sadducees and the Sanhedrin saw the opportunity to rid themselves of still another religious troublemaker similar to John the Baptist, who, unlike John, was right in their midst drawing too much attention; they also saw in their assent to the execution the opportunity to demonstrate they were officially against the fomenting of anti-Roman sentiments, even religious ones, at least at that juncture.
I think blaming the Jews as being at least partly culpable for Jesus’ death set up the template that guided Christianity centuries later into the horrors of antisemitism. Not that the writers of the Biblical Gospels and Acts were blatantly antisemitic; these writers, in their evangelistic zeal, did not and possibly could not foresee hellish interpretations of their writing; rather, as I said earlier, later antisemitism blatantly overlooked Jesus’ Jewishness. As Jesus became the Christ, Jews became “Christ killers” in the twisted minds of antisemitism. Even more horrifically, as Jesus became Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, and one of the Trinity, Jews were seen as turning their back upon their biblical God to become “God killers.” That logic leads to the conclusion that Jews do not deserve to live, at least not to live well, and this became the theme of European antisemitism, culminating in the ultimate, unthinkable crime against humanity history calls the Holocaust. I urge all readers to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (if they cannot visit the Nazi death camps in Europe or memorials in Israel) to be reminded of the truth of Voltaire’s words: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” History has shown religious and/or political power conjures the most inhuman absurdities spawning the most genocidal atrocities.
Curiously, as pointed out by archaeologist Simcha Jacobovici, for crucifixion to be allegedly so wide-spread throughout the Roman Empire, there is today remarkably little archaeological evidence for it. Nor is there extensive writing on the process from its day, except for the great numbers of victims. There could be many explanations for this interesting phenomenon, like perhaps during the centuries of the Christianized Roman Empire, most believers were illiterate and extremely credulous and could be persuaded that any piece of ghoulish evidence from a crucifixion, like a nail in an ankle bone, was from Jesus’ crucifixion; Christian relics of all sorts were “big business,” and in some cases, still are. For literate believers, perhaps writers of the Empire found better subjects about which to write than the preferred method of executing criminals. I prefer an explanation suggested by Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee) – crosses, nails, and ropes were used and reused, and the body was traditionally left to whatever carrion eaters were available; there was no need to bury crucified bodies, as whatever was left was thrown to the dogs; all traces of the crucified body usually disappeared, destroying the crucified from memory in time.
Hence, ii), Jesus’ crucifixion, was recorded well after the fact, replete with all kinds of circumstances attesting that there was a complete body to bury — his early death on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, etc. Most of Christian apologetics are rationalizations of the undeniable fact that Jesus was executed as a criminal. If the gospel writers could have gotten by without talking about the crucifixion, they probably would have done so. Of course, they could not do that, as Jesus’ execution fills his story with drama and pathos, and if anyone knew anything about Jesus, it was his death on the cross. Think of how his disciples, minus Judas, must have felt, not to mention his family and Mary Magdalene. There was every reason to believe the ministry of Jesus was over.
Jesus’ ministry was over. I think his body disappeared just as those of other crucifixion victims.
Perhaps in as little as days after the crucifixion (the Friday-to-Sunday tradition) some version of iii) apparently came about — the belief that despite Jesus dying, he was now alive, having been resurrected from the dead. No need for creative scenarios like Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot (Bantam paperback, 1966), in which Jesus was drugged to appear dead; believers and non-believers agree that he died. To be resurrected intact, there needed to be an empty tomb for the Gospel writers. At the time, however, I agree with Erhman there needed to be no tomb at all, much less an empty one. All the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to individuals and to crowds were added decades after the crucifixion as scaffolding to “hold up” belief in the resurrection, including the story of doubting Thomas. By the time they were added, chances were most who could have protested the stories’ authenticity were in no position to be skeptical, as they were among the multitudes victimized by the revolt of 62-70 CE; writers of the 4 Gospels and Acts had few critics to worry about.
So, how did iii) become the saving idea of Jesus’ following? How did the belief Jesus rose from the dead ultimately make possible the “layering” of theology upon theology to create what became Christianity with all its attendant Christology? Ehrman makes a strong case that “the resurrection idea” survived and “took off” because of just three “visions” or “appearances” of the resurrected Jesus — three separate visions before three who just might be the base-rock creators of Christianity, namely, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. (Just remember the ’60’s folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” fame.) The appearances before the disciples/apostles Peter and Mary Magdalene [Remember, I consider Mary Magdalene Jesus’ closest disciple, and therefore an apostle; Paul should not be the Apostle Paul, in my opinion (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], as he was not one of those who lived with Jesus during his ministry.] are the foundation or “immediate” visions, as Paul’s (a result of head trauma due to a fall off his ass, trauma to a mind already traumatized by guilt over persecuting early Christians as Saul) came well after Jesus’ alleged ascension into heaven. [Paul’s is important because it “kickstarted” Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, the universal theme of Christian theology. As I have said, a case could be made that Christianity would be more accurately called “Paulianity.” (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012])]
As we learn more about how the human brain works, studies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us insights into hallucinations, visions, and dreams. Combining Ehrman’s terminology with my own recently-developed ideas on human perception, the following model can easily account for what happened to Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:
What we perceive, what we “see” with the “mind’s eye,” is the combined product of empirical data coming to us from our five senses — from the real world “outside” — and manufactured concepts and ideas from our mind’s world “inside.” These “inside” concepts result from processing the empirical data from the outside, “digesting” them back onto our perception through simplifying rules of pattern recognition and algorithms. Thus our perception is part “in your face” outside world and part “made up” inside world. The ratio outside to inside is probably different from individual to individual and from moment to moment. Perception from outside empirical data is called veridical (or based upon the “real world”) and perception from inside the workings of the mind is called nonveridical (or NOT based upon the “real world”). Human hallucinations and dreams are seen as nonveridical, and I agree with Ehrman the three visions that ultimately made Christianity possible were nonveridical; the three had the experience of “seeing something,” but what they saw was not from their immediate surroundings; they thought they saw and heard Jesus, but if others were nearby, as in the case of Paul’s vision, they would not have seen and heard Jesus. (Incidentally, nonveridical properties of the brain are not all negative, as they are necessary to generalize and organize the flood of empirical data bombarding our senses; without them we probably would have gone mad and not survived dealing with the unfathomable number of datum from “out there.” Moreover, our subjective imaginations are all nonveridical; ironically, any critique, including this one, is a nonveridical enterprise.)
Nonveridical visions are known to be associated with times the person is under stress. Peter (who denied Jesus after his master’s arrest) and Paul (who persecuted Christians when he was called Saul) were both racked with guilt when they had their visions, and Mary Magdalene was racked with grief when she had hers, as she had just lost the most important person in her religious and personal life. Who was the most consistent witness to the “empty tomb” across the Synoptic Gospels? Mary Magdalene. Why was an actual empty tomb not necessary? She, at the time of Jesus’ death, was the most important and credible disciple (Some historians want to recognize her as the first evangelist, not Peter or Paul.); if she says she saw Jesus, then there is no need to find an empty tomb. Who in their right mind among the believers would doubt her? She, having had a vivid nonveridical experience, certainly believed she had had a visitation from him. The same could be said about the credibility of Peter’s nonveridical visitation. The scenes at Joseph of Arimathea’s lent tomb and stories like that of doubting Thomas were later added to the resurrection story by the gospel writers, as questions were asked over time. Questions like, “Why did the resurrected Jesus only appear to two of his disciples, and not the other ten?” (13 disciples, minus Peter and Mary Magdalene, and minus Judas equals ten). The perception model I’m presenting here would answer, “Because those ten did not have nonveridical visions of Jesus after he died.” (Moreover, Peter and Paul were dead by the time the Gospels were written, and probably so was Mary Magdalene, as tradition places her death about 100 CE, which would give her unusual longevity for a woman of that time. Even if she were alive, lucid, and knew about the Gospel stories of her and the empty tomb, why would she as an evangelist repudiate them?) As it turned out, the empty tomb “layering” became accepted Christian tradition, looking as credible as “layers” like Jesus’ plethora of post-death appearances and his ascension. And, besides, should anyone have wanted to “check out” the empty tomb by reading the freshly-written Synoptic Gospels, probably nothing resembling such an empty tomb could be found due to co-lateral damage from the revolt. Those who believed in the empty tomb had to take the writers at their word. Later, in about three hundred years, Constantine’s Momma, Helena, gave the newly-empowered Church an actual tomb site to venerate (Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015]).
Almost any introspective person, I would suspect, has had nonveridical experiences of their own. I will mention three of my own: a) Just recently, my son and I were playing a 3-hole washer game in his back yard and had to stop due to darkness. In the twilight, we had to search for a lost, dark-colored washer on the lawn; we finally had to get a flashlight to find it. During the search, I saw in the dark, indistinct patterns of the grass in the twilight doughnut-like impressions, as if they were the washer we were seeking. Clearly, the impressions were not really there. b) Several years ago, I had a vivid dream about my long-dead maternal great uncle. It must have been the dream right before I awakened, as I awoke remembering clearly details about his appearance and especially the words he had spoken to me in the dream. I right away realized why primitive societies developed some form of ancestor worship; in a primitive society I might well have declared to my family and neighbors that my great uncle had visited me the night before. I would have authenticated my “visitation” with the words I was told, which probably would have resonated with my listeners who happened to have known him. If I and others had additional such “visitations” suggested by this first experience, then my great uncle might have joined our local “pantheon.” c) The third example is the most serious one, as it illustrates possible nonveridical origins of even dangerous absurdities. Sometime in the early grades of my schooling, when I was just old enough to think I could be an independent helping hand to my parents on the farm/ranch they owned, and I now own, I got lost from my parents on a cold, drizzly winter’s day in the woods as we were spreading out from the barn trying to locate the herd of mohair goats we were running on the ranch then. Being temporarily lost placed my mind into stress almost leading to panic, but I was too proud to shout out my location. I moved to where I thought the barn and truck were, and sure enough a sight of a barn with truck appeared before me, complete with the stock tank dam on which I loved to play. But I was so stressed over being lost, I convinced myself this was NOT our barn, truck, and tank, probably because I did not see goats nor parents. I turned around and went back into the woods! I had found safety, but convinced myself it was not; I was not lost anymore, but I thought I still was. Luckily, I soon encountered in the woods some of our goats and then my parents; as we herded back in the direction from which I came, I saw now the barn as our barn, confused as to why I had seen it so differently earlier. c) could have been a dangerous situation for me, had I really got lost and backtracked on a larger piece of land beyond earshot of my parents. I had made an absurd interpretation of my perception a fact in my head, thanks to nonveridical capabilities.
Now that the table top has been made to look the same, top and bottom, this streamlined, plausible biography of Jesus still allows that for Christianity to emerge, long though it took, from such meager and credible historical sources, is still quite remarkable. That does not make the theology of Christianity true, however. If the theology is so bankrupt, then, why has the Church “hung on,” say, from the days of the Enlightenment and the establishment of biblical criticism? Part of the answer is that Christian congregations have been “cocooned” from historical skepticism by their clergy, their own credulity, and their own intellectual laziness (It is easier and less trouble to believe what you are told.). But another part of the answer is that even skeptics of Christian theology concentrate on the “other horn” of Jesus’ message, his marvelously humane ethical teachings based upon the Golden Rule as being “worthy of keeping.” I agree, but ask why his ethics have to be taught through a vehicle shackled by the faith-based absurdities of the theology. In an upcoming exploration, I consider “keeping” Jesus as one of many “Golden Rulers” whose teaching is spread by other ways than some kind of Church.
Hence, the creation of Jesus Christ, through an exhalation taking centuries to execute, is a huge historical distortion of a remarkable “common” man’s biography. From this, I am tempted to induce that the nonveridical capabilities of the human brain can turn any human or humans into a person or persons worthy of some kind of religious veneration.
Looking at the broader picture, Christianity is one of the three Semitic (Abraham-based) world religions that have separately done just that “turning” — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in chronological order of origin. There is at least one very dark consequence of creating nonveridically-derived religious venerates. All three, perhaps in contrast with Eastern world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.), paint themselves into a corner of intolerance, in that you cannot be an orthodox Jew and at the same time be of another faith; you cannot be a Christian and simultaneously be of another faith; you cannot be a Muslim and concurrently be of another faith. In other words, these three world religions create an “us versus them” syndrome, with no way of comparing “us” with “them” save through a faith-based epistemology. With no way, therefore, of demonstrating their “truth” save by faith, they must not tolerate “them” midst “us” if “them” claims to be as true, or more true, than “us.” Again, “us” cannot tolerate “them,” and history has shown that encounters among the intolerant result in innocent people being killed — innocents murdered, in the final analysis, in the name of some nonveridical theology.
Another horrible consequence of both Christianity and Islam is the possibility of justifying, via their respective intolerance, antisemitism, as mentioned above. This does not mean Judaism is “innocent” of murderous intolerance. Look in the Old Testament what was done to “Gentiles,” whose only crime was not being Hebrew, not being “God’s Chosen.” Nonveridical theology has indeed spawned evil in all three Semitic great world religions.
I hope now the reader has some understanding of why I took the “long and winding road” of the three sortings (apologies to the Beatles song “Long and Winding Road”) listed at the beginning. Some important truths at the end of this road turn out to be unexpected, shocking, revealing, heretical, and/or blasphemous, so, therefore, it is imperative to “tread carefully,” making the argument to these truths step-by-step and carefully measured. My long and winding intellectual path is necessarily a personal one; others who would arrive at similar or other conclusions as I would undoubtedly have a much different-looking path. Religion is a subjective experience, a personal journey necessarily consisting of nonveridical mental exercises, some of which that can be “good,” “wholesome,” “kind,” and “loving,” like conceptions of Jesus’ ethical teachings. It could be said that I have personally undertaken the task of separating the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the reliable from the unreliable, or the ethics from the theology in Christianity. I hope I have demonstrated this can be done for Christianity and any other religion; I hope I have inspired other freethinkers to do something similar.
Another personal reason for my “long and winding road” is that I can take that road without fearing consequences of doing so; I criticize Christianity and other religions because I can. I can, thanks to the heritage we have living in a free society, a heritage bought with the blood of courageous thinkers and doers of our past — a heritage made possible by ancient rationalists, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. Because of this heritage, I understand and sympathize with the comment of a character in a French film, who sat down on the steps of the cathedral into which the rest of his family was going for a wedding, christening, or some such — sat down in personal conflict if he should go in or not. When asked why he was hesitating, he said unequivocally, “There is no place for churches in a republic!” Nonveridical theology does not mix well with liberte, egalite, and fraternite, or with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes on p 237 of her book Heretic, Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now (Harper, 2015, ISBN 978-0-06-233393-3), we need “…to remind ourselves that the right to think, to speak, and to write in freedom and without fear is ultimately a more sacred thing than any religion.” Well said, Ayaan, well said and so true.