IT is incontestable in this modern age that science has been the singularly most powerful tool for us to understand reality, to separate what’s false and mythical, and what’s true and factual (or historical). Science just in the past 100 years of modern human’s 200,000 years of existence, for instance, has unlocked the mysteries of the atom and of the human genome, so we understand now that the world is not composed of “earth, air, water and fire” nor are we just a more sophisticated form of dust.
But science has been employed not only to understand matter but also human society, through such disciplines as archaeology, philology, literary and textual criticism, and sociology. So, it is not surprising at all that the social sciences have been used to study that aspect of human society that is so significant to humans: religion. These social sciences have been used to study the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are supposedly celebrating tomorrow. Similar studies have been used to study the Muhammad of Islam. (See my column “Was Islam a Christian sect?” in October 2013).
Did such a person — whether as God himself in a reincarnation so familiar to the ancient world, or as half-divine, half-human — really exist?
The question has been asked by scholars starting way back in the 18th century. In recent years, interest in the question has intensified with probably a thousand doctoral and masters theses, books, as well as articles, both from Christian and secular universities, being churned out on the issue.
The result of these studies will trouble the Christian faithful.
Probably 40 percent of scholars who have studied Christianity without the blinkers of religious dogma have concluded that a Jew named Yeshua who was deified as Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Messiah) never existed, and was merely the invention of the proselytizer Greek-Jew Paul, in practically the same way the ancient Egyptians concocted the god-man Osiris or the Greeks, the demi-god Hercules.
Another 40 percent have concluded that a preacher Yeshua did exist—but just one of the scores of similar Jewish apocalyptics who proliferated in the Middle East after the traumatic destruction by the Romans of the Jews’ Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70, claiming that a savior would come to defeat the evil empire.
In the past few years, there has been 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 were prevalent in myths during that era and in that part of the world. The theme of a dying-rising god was 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 will 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?
Aramaic, not Greek
No, I learned that in my first theology class at the Ateneo in my youth. The Gospels are written in Greek. The four evangelists’ language was Aramaic, and having been recruited from the poor, they were illiterate in an age and society where only an estimated 1 percent of the population, mainly the priests and rulers, 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 AD 70 about two decades after Jesus’ reported crucifixion) by anonymous Greek-speaking, highly literate writers after hearing accounts of the Messiah by disciples of the disciples of Jesus’12 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 century Roman-Jewish historian Josephus — “the doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth” — has been conclusively established to have been clumsily inserted into the text much later, obviously by a Jesus believer.
The mythicists’ arguments seem to be gaining traction both in the academe and in bookstores that a leading authority on the bible, Bart D. Ehrman, professor of religious studies at North Carolina University, wrote a much-acclaimed book devoted to debunking them: “Did Jesus Exist?” (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).
Ehrman points out that there are just too many references to Jesus from other sources within a century after his death. Myths are usually created and narrated by writers many 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.”
Yeshua, not Jesus
Ehrman also argues that the early Christians couldn’t have invented their claim that the Romans crucified Jesus, since that would be ridiculous as a “Messiah” was for the Jews a precise term for 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.
However, while Ehrman has no doubt that Jesus existed, he believes he is not the Jesus Christ of Christianity. He was Yeshua (then a common a name in Palestine), an apocalyptic prophet, one of 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, God would overthrow their Roman conquerors led by a Messiah, a Prophet-King.
When Jesus said the “Kingdom of God is near”, he was not referring to an afterlife-Heaven, where good souls supposedly go after death. Instead, he was alluding to the establishment of God’s anointed Kingdom of Israel, which would 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 neither the revolutionary leader idealized by Catholic liberation theology priests. Jesus thought, and taught, that the Romans would 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 that Jesus created at the Temple during Passover, when it was most crowded, it was no wonder that 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; they even killed people they conquered when they were bored. Ehrman says the trial of Jesus probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes and the order of death carried out immediately. “Before anyone knew it, the apocalyptic preacher was on a cross, and dead within six hours.”
But why did the “Jesus movement” grow to become one of the world’s largest organized religions?
It was embraced in the 3rd century as one of the major state religions of the Roman Empire — the most powerful empire the world has seen — as ordered by the wily Constantine the Great as one way of consolidating this rule over an empire of varied cultures and peoples. The rest, to use the cliché, is history, as the successors of the Roman Empire, the medieval kingdoms of Europe (Spain, England, France and Germany), and then the modern superpowers that included the United States, embraced Christianity also as their de facto state religions.
That is of course the way other major religions of the world grew, as a state religion that rulers use to make the ruled believe that they rule by divine ordinance. After being the war religion of Arab tribes that created their Caliphates in the 8th century in the Middle East, Islam became the state religion of the Ottoman Empire that emerged in the 14th century that rivalled the Christian European empires.
Hinduism and Buddhism of course didn’t grow as huge as Islam and Christianity did, even if they were much older than these two relatively modern religions. India, whose main religion is Hinduism, and China, where Buddhism competed with Confucianism, never became world empires.
It is not coincidental that the central figure of Christianity is more often called Christ the King, or that of Islam’s as Allah the Most Powerful.