Jesus: My Historical Perspective
This post is in response to a comment on an earlier posting “On Renouncing Christianity”. Annie B asked me for my perspective on Jesus. In thinking about how best to answer it quickly became clear I was going to write a new (long) blog to set out my case. Here goes.
Arguably, the two most quoted sayings by Jesus are Luke 6:31 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, also known as the golden rule, and Mark 12:31 “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. These are, ironically, also the two gavels with which non-religious people indict Christians, who are often found wanting of Christ-like compassion and often found to be hypocritical poseurs, zealously vindictive in their pursuit of the punishment of sin in others. Christians forget or simply ignore Romans 12:9 “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
I like to think that both aforementioned Luke and Mark verses aver to an idealism held by all humanists: a world of peace and harmony; love and brotherhood; truth and justice; integrity and dignity for everyone born under the sun or stars. The problem is that in real life, in the real world out there, not everyone is inclined to do unto you as they would have you do unto them; and not everyone is sworn to love you as they love themselves. The wily Romans said “Caveat emptor” for a damn good reason. Beware! what is before you is not always what you see. And truly, since humans have been spotted running wild in the pursuit of pleasure and the fulfillment of ambition, we have exhibited an unruly propensity to lie, cheat, exaggerate and oftentimes hold mistaken beliefs with conviction. These propensities belong to all cultures as far as five thousand years of written history can tell us.
Nothing of what I’ve just said will be news to any reader who’s followed the news. Politicians, journalists, bankers, stock tipsters, lawyers, cops, big corporations and hoi polloi; in every walk of life we come across the worst (and best) in people. A few anecdotes to illustrate my extreme cynicism: I recall a story of a Pharaoh whose army fled when they saw the enemy, leaving the King to fight the war on his own. Think about it: one man against tens of thousands. What chance could he have? You got it. But that’s not what he had his scribes write down when his army returned victorious. On the walls of the temple this mighty Pharaoh faced down the enemy alone. If one reads Homer’s Iliad without a bucket of salt one would believe giants like Ajax and Hector could cut through armies almost single-handed and that goddesses can swoop down in the middle of a battle to pluck favourites out of harm’s way. Oh yes, that’s called a miracle.
Homer wrote conversations held in the midst of battle. Really? Who was there to record? But we all know it’s a fictionalised account of a probable historical event much like Shakespeare’s War of the Roses or Edward III. Reminds me of the story in the Bible (another fiction loosely based on a few historical events) when the Devil walks in on God to request permission to test Job. Which human was there to write that conversation down? Oh yes, it’s called divine inspiration. And God visited Abraham to let him know of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – we have Abraham’s word on that. When the great historian Thucydides went researching for his book on the Peloponnesian War, he wisely discounted many things he heard people who were there said happened. Divine intervention?
So then what should we believe is acceptably true? For me the shrewdest thing Jesus said is in John 8:32 “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Without truth, all life is a lie. It can be a happy lie. It can even be a rich contented lie. But it’s a lie nevertheless and for all those who take to Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, living a lie is like having scarred arteries; it blocks the oxygenated blood of life.
It, simply, is naive to believe a man, any man, without putting his claims to examination. I know my Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”. Blind faith? Too naive. In the olde days, an English man’s word may have been his bond but that didn’t stop English law developing into the juggernaut it is today and possibly the best legal system in the world (New Yorkers will have a different view). My point is that if you look at the ever increasing mountain of laws and regulations that exist today there is no doubt they are there because one simply cannot trust humans to not deal sharply; to always do what’s right and to tell the truth. We always find reasons to excuse our crimes and misdemeanors. That’s why we have law enforcement and why we have auditors.
Lenin used to say “Doveryai, no proveryai”; Reagan popularized this as “Trust but verify”. I would rephrase: “Verify then trust.” All “Holy” books were written by men and the occasional woman. They claim God spoke to them but all we have are their words. If we challenge those words, these people of God, condemn us by the same words they wrote. What a perverse recursion. It’s like Hotel California, you get in but can’t ever get out. There’s simply no external reference or corroboration.
The perambulation above sets the framework for how I look at Jesus as an historical figure. [I used to be a talking in tongues born again christian. I believed Jesus was the Son of God, was God Himself, died for my sins and rose again…. you know the script]. So let’s get back to Jesus. How I see him can be discerned in my comments on the following events of his life.
- Did he even exist?
Probably. There are accounts of someone who claimed to be who he was.
- The circumstances of his birth
Before the age of test tube babies and artificial insemination a baby was born to a woman and man who fucked each other. That tells you what I think of the virgin birth. In photographs of stars taken at night with long exposures we don’t see a star as a point but as a line as it makes its way across the night sky. That story in the Bible where three wise men follow a star which comes to a halt just above a manger? The earth is moving at something like 100,000km/hr around the sun; itself moving at 900,000 km/hr around the milky way. So a star going its own way suddenly slows down to track earth just above this manger in Jerusalem. C’mon!
- At age 12: He goes to the Temple and confounds the priests with his intelligence.
There are precocious kids around and maybe he was one.
- Baptism: dove appears and lands on his head
C’mon! When do doves alight on people’s heads? Even if one did it was quite normal for people in ancient times to see signs in everything that happened: eclipses, thunder, a wolf howling just at the right moment, the entrails of a sacrifice etc etc.
- Feeding the multitude: five thousand people on two fish and five loaves?
Not remotely possible.
- Fasting: 40 days in the desert after which the Devil appears to offer the riches of the world in return for Jesus bowing to him
Hallucination or a bare faced made up story. Who was there to witness?
- Walked on water
Right. Explain that scientifically.
- Hem of his cloth. Woman touches his cloth and is healed (or claimed to be). Various healings alleged
It’s called a placebo effect. Curiously despite Jesus saying what he did his followers would too and more, there has been no certified restoration of sight to a blind person or a raising from the dead or an amputee’s legs regrowing or mass healings from cancer etc. But headaches and flus and such like, yes some Christians claim to have been healed. Sometimes, as doctors have found, a sugar pill can heal too if the patient believes they are getting the real medicine.
- Crucifixion & Resurrection
Looks like he was crucified for sure. But resurrection without defibrillation and after three days? Is this like people saying Grandpa died and appeared to them afterwards? If you’re dead for three days you ain’t coming back.
- Ascension: He stood on a hill and the ascended into the heavens
We have been above the sky and there’s nothing there but space. There’s the moon close by but surely that can’t be heaven? In any case, no man can defy gravity without machines.
- He claims to be The Way and The The Truth and The Life and no man can get to God except through Him (John 14:16)
What delusion! Off the rails! Let him prove it. Oh yes, we are in the End Times and he’ll be back shortly as proof. Christians have been saying that for like forever and may still be saying it a thousand years from now. One day they will be right of course because we will either destroy ourselves, or another civilization will, or something will crash into us and wipe us out or the sun will consume us in its death throes. The end times will not be white-skinned beings with wings riding horses and blowing trumpets. Heck, if Jesus lived today he would be prophesying his return in rocket ships.
I stop there and so there it is. I have no suitable response to the Christian response that this and that are miracles. I believe in chance happenings. I believe in working for things. I believe in luck (ah, chance happenings again mixed with preparation). I don’t believe in miracles of the sort that comes with divine intervention. There has been no confirmed sighting of a deus ex machina. I don’t believe in divine inspiration because the only source of that averment comes from books by men who claim divine inspiration in writing said books and as I’ve said before men have a propensity to lie, cheat, exaggerate and hold mistaken beliefs. I’ll change my mind when the facts say otherwise; in the meantime I embrace the truth I see before me for it is that which has set me free. And that’s probably what Jesus would have wanted. I think.