Did Jesus Exist?

The book's cover

Sunday Read: Book Review

The Manila Times, March 24, 2013

You’d probably be aghast that I devote a column to what seems to be preposterous question.

But it has been asked starting way back in the 18th century by scholars. In recent years, interest on the question has intensified with probably a thousand doctoral and masteral theses, books as well as articles both from Christian and secular universities touching on the issue. In past few years a slew of books – both academic and popular – by scholars and authors called the “mythicists’”. They argue that Jesus Christ is a myth, concocted in the first and second centuries to become the core of a new religion.

The mythicists claim we cannot simply accept the myths and even legends of pre-scientific superstitious societies but examine them in the light of science and humanity’s bank of information.  This is obvious in the case of the Greek gods. Less obvious are the cases of  Santa Claus, Robin Hood, even St. Christopher  who turn out not to be real historical people but amalgams of persons mythicized over the centuries (e.g., Santa Claus a confused mix of a 4th century German bishop St. Nicholas and the pre-Christian Viking god Odin.)

The mythicists  claim that elements of the Jesus  story have been common in myths during  that era and in that part of the world. The theme of a dying-rising God has been common in ancient religions: Osiris, Attis, Heracles, Baal.  The Persian God Mithra (who was popular among Roman soldiers) was also born to a virgin.

One of their strongest arguments would surprise most Christians: There wasn’t any eyewitness account of Jesus. The New Testament is 100 percent hearsay.  But weren’t Mark, Luke, John and Matthew who wrote the Gospels disciples of Jesus, who narrated their time with the Messiah?

No, I learned that in my first theology class at the Ateneo many years ago.  The Gospels are written in Greek. The four evangelists’ language was Aramaic, and recruited from the poor, they most probably were illiterate in an age and society where only an estimate 3% of the population, mainly the priests and ruliers, were literate.  No way they could have written the Gospels.

All biblical experts, even the passionately Christian ones, are unanimous that the gospels were written down – the earliest is Mark’s in 70 AD — by anonymous Greek-speaking, highly literate writers after hearing accounts of Jesus by disciples of the disciples of  Jesus’ twelve apostles.

Furthermore, the mythicists argue, there are no non-Christian accounts reporting that a Jesus existed and was crucified.  The often-cited reference to Jesus by the 1st cnetury Roman-Jewish historian Josephus — “the doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth” – has been established to have been clumsily inserted into the text much later, obviously by a Jesus believer.

The mythicists’ arguments seem to have been recently been gaining traction both in the academe and in bookstores that a leading authority on the bible, North Carolina University professor of religious studies, Bart D. Ehrman, last year wrote a much-acclaimed book devoted to debunking them: Did Jesus Exist? (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

The good news for the faithful from Ehrman’s rigorous study:  Jesus is a historical figure, he did exist.

Ehrman points out that there are just too many references to Jesus from other sources,  and  within century after his death.  Myths are usually created and narrated by writers’ centuries after they occurred.  Other than the four Gospels in the Bible, there have been in fact new “gospels” discovered and translated in recent years that have become New Agers’ favorites, such as the “The Gospel of Judas” and “The Gospel of Mary”.

One of his main arguments though would trouble the faithful.  Paul of the New Testament – considered to be mainly responsible for the spread of the Jesus movement outside Judaea – invokes his authority and knowledge of Christ by claiming that he had talked not only with Peter, but also with James – whom he describes as Jesus’ closest disciple and biological brother.

And it’s been settled that he wasn’t just using “brother” in the now Christian usage of “brothers in Christ”: The Greek term for brother (adelpos) referred then and now strictly to a biological brother.   A con man might say that he is a disciple of this great guru; he’d never claim though to be his biological brother.

Ehrman also argues that the early Christians couldn’t have invented their claim that the Romans crucified Jesus, since that would seem ridiculous, as a “Messiah” was for the Jews precisely a Savior who would overthrow the Romans and restore the glory of the Kingdom of Israel. But the fact that they did, Ehrman argues, makes the existence of Jesus more credible.

This brings us to bad news for the faithful based on Ehrman’s book.   While Ehrman has no doubt that Jesus existed, he is not the Jesus Christ of Christianity.  He was Yeshua – as common a name in Palestine then as Juan is in the Philippines – who was an apocalyptic prophet, one the many repent-the-end-is-near millenarians in that age and society when Jews firmly believed that since  they were God’s Chosen People,  He would soon overthrow their Roman conquerors.

When Jesus said the “Kingdom of God” is near, Ehrman claims, he was not referring to a Heaven, where good souls will go when the die.   It is the reestablishment of God’s anointed Kingdom of Israel, which will rule over all other nations.  And this will be happening very soon that Jesus admonished his disciples: “Watch therefore.. lest when he comes suddenly he finds you sleeping.”  He even gives a timeline for the cosmic cataclysm, before his disciples “taste death” (Mark 9:1) or in Mark 13:30, before “this generation” passes away.

Jesus however was not the revolutionary Catholic liberation priests believe he was. Jesus thought – and taught — that the Romans will be overthrown by God with His cosmic forces: “The sun will grow dark and the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling.. and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:24-27).’

After the fracas Jesus created at the Temple when it was most crowded, during Passover, no wonder Pontius Pilate saw him as another of the many troublemakers rousing the masses to overthrow their Roman yoke.   The Romans of course ruled by fear, who killed people they conquered when they were bored.  Ehrman says the trial probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes and the order carried out immediately. “Before anyone knew it, the apocalyptic preacher was on a cross, and dead within six hours.”

How Christianity grew however from the quick execution of this particular apocalyptic preacher is another story, a fascinating one. (Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman. P1,200 at National Bookstore and Fully Booked.)