Just a heartbeat after Jesus was resurrected on this past Easter Sunday for the 1979th time – give or take a few years – religious scholars revived the old debate: did he really live?
It was a funny story to read on Easter Sunday with the usual combatants going at each other with nasty names. The vindictive nature of the argument is understandable. The believers are lined up on one side, marshaling their nonexistent evidence, while the non-believers are doing the exact same thing across a seemingly inaccessible divide.
The whole thing could be solved easily with some facts. Unfortunately, there aren’t any. No Roman historian of the time period, no Jewish historian, no writer of any kind left a shred of a mention about the Son of God. There are no plaques were left, no engravings, no markings, no statues; there is simply nothing for any historian today to point to as proof.
What has endured, such as a paragraph in the writings of Jewish historian Josephus, has clearly been added to the text to make up for the obvious omission. Evidence from Jesus’ supposed trial in front of Pontius Pilate (artist's 1300s depiction at right) are gone, even those released by an emperor in the fourth century. The Romans kept meticulous records. Those from the time of Jesus have vanished.
The four biblical accounts have been unequivocally shown to contain limited to no history. In the 1960s, The Roman Catholic Church gave up the ghost and conceded that the texts represented the “belief” of the authors, not history.
As a result, a wide number of people throughout Scandinavia and the West now accept the idea that Jesus is simply a myth. In Scandinavia, for example, Christianity has virtually disappeared.
That’s a terrible thing to say about someone who just died again.
Nevertheless, the mythicists who argue Jesus didn’t exist have to be wrong. Jesus definitely lived for three plausible reasons.
1) Paul (artist's concept at right) believed he existed. The Apostle never met Jesus, but claimed to have received a vision of Jesus while on the road from Damascus, where he had gone illicitly to harass the fledgling Christian colony there. It would have been to his great advantage to deny the existence of a real person and to focus only on his vision. Instead, Paul accepted the leadership of what he called the “pillars” of the early church, including James, identified as the bother of Jesus.
Imaginary people don’t have brothers. Nor do earnest missionaries who disagree with official teachings kowtow to the followers of an imaginary person.
2) The pillars that Paul accepted were real people. They led a tiny sect of Jews who thought of Jesus as a great prophet, not as a god. Their existence testifies to the reality of a Jesus.
3) The Talmud (right), a collection of commentary on the biblical text, contains references to Jesus. The great sages of the day were not in the habit of commenting on imaginary people.
On that basis, there’s no question that Jesus lived. What he did is another matter. The early church leaders, including James, were known as Nazarenes. They did not believe Jesus was God, part of God or anything other than a prophet, a spokesman channeling God’s thoughts. They continued their rigorous worship at the Jewish temple. James’ knees were described as like a camel's from so much praying.
They believed Jesus was right: the wicked world was coming to an end and would be replaced by Jewish theocracy that would govern Israel in accordance to Jewish law.
They objected to Paul, who taught the same apocalyptic message, but added that believers only had to accept Jesus and not Jewish law. The Nazarenes would not discard the laws that had already bound the Jewish people for about 400 years. Paul, coming from the Greek culture, had no such restraints and so freed his faith to become the dominant religion of the region and then the world.
Nevertheless, his view of Jesus did not include divine status. Paul saw Jesus as a normal person who was elevated to the role of messiah – anointed king – when crucified. Jesus would then return to complete his mandated role of creating the Jewish theocracy. The miracles included in the Gospels have been shown to be later additions to the text and replicate miracles recorded in the Jewish sacred books.
Later Christians -- motivated by the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., an action that convinced them God had left the Chosen People and had moved to their side -- began to believe Jesus was God, giving him another promotion. His divine status was affirmed during the Council of Nicea (right) in 325 C.E.
In a way, then, both sides of the Did Jesus Exist? argument are correct: yes, a person lived in the first century C.E. No, he was not God.
Maybe both sides can shake hands now, go home and let Jesus rest in peace.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.