AT this time of year, when our culture, dominated for nearly four centuries by the Hispanic model of late-medieval Catholicism, imposes on us several days of contemplating the Christian Messiah, I dare discuss whether Christ did exist in the first place. Indeed, a mountain of scholarly work in the past few decades has been published trying to answer this question, mostly in the negative, at least in the way Christianity claims he is.
To start getting out of one’s mindset built since childhood, you have to recognize that in this modern age science has been the singularly 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 a brief span of 100 years of modern human’s 200,000 years of existence, 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 itself through such disciplines as archaeology, philology, psychology, 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.
The social sciences have been employed to study the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ, whose death we are supposed to be commemorating today. A few similar studies have also been used to study Muhammad of Islam, although mostly by anonymous scholars, obviously afraid a fatwah would be issued against them.
The question whether Jesus Christ – half-god, half-human — has been asked by scholars starting in the 18th century, as academic freedom was unshackled from clerical dictatorship. In recent years, interest in the question has intensified with probably a thousand doctoral and masteral 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.
Some 40 percent, by one reckoning, have concluded that a preacher Yeshua (a very common Jewish name) did exist, but he was just one of scores of similar Jewish apocalyptic preachers who proliferated in the Middle East after the traumatic destruction by the Romans of the Jews’ Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE (for Common Era, the non-Christian-centric equivalent of AD).
They claimed they were the Messiahs (from the Hebrew “Mashiach,” the one anointed by oil, i.e. God-appointed) with Divine superpowers to defeat the most powerful military machine at that era, the Romans.
A leading authority on the bible, Bart D. Ehrman, in his book Did Jesus Exist? claimed that Jesus was one of the many “repent-the-end-is-near” millenarians in that age and society when Jews believed that since they were God’s Chosen People, God would overthrow their Roman conquerors, led by a Messiah, a Prophet-King. The best-selling book The Zealot by Reza Aslan explained that Jesus was a member of the Zealots, a political movement in Judea inciting people to overthrow the Roman yoke.
Ehrman however pointed out that 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.
Jesus in fact in even claimed when this cosmic cataclysm would happen: 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 rousing and organizing the masses, as idealized by Catholic liberation theology priests. Jesus believed 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)
Pontius Pilate of course saw him as another of the many troublemakers rousing the masses to overthrow the Roman yoke. The Romans 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,” Ehrman wrote somewhat sarcastically.
Another 40 percent of scholars who have studied Christianity without the blinkers of religious dogma have concluded Jesus Christ never existed. It is merely the invention of the proselytizer Greek-Jewish Paul, in practically the same way the ancient Egyptians concocted the god-man Osiris, or the Greeks, the demi-god Hercules.
These “mythicists” claim that Jesus Christ is a legendary figure invented in the first and second centuries to become the core of a new religion, just as Greek gods, Santa Claus, Robin Hood, King Arthur were not real historical people but amalgams of persons mythicized over the centuries.
As evidence, 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.
Furthermore, the mythicists point out, there are no non-Christian accounts reporting that a Jesus existed and was crucified. The often-cited reference to Jesus by the first-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 a century after Jesus’ supposed life, obviously by a Jesus believer.
This thesis has been developed in recent years to what may be its most extreme version:
Jesus was invented by the Romans as a means of pacifying the Jews, who were one of the most rebellious nations it conquered. The Romans feared they could engulf Rome from its periphery, since after their Temple’s destruction, they spread out to and built communities all over the Mediterranean coasts.
This thesis has been propounded in the best-selling book Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, by Joseph Atwill, a respected scholar on biblical studies.
For me that very well explains one episode in the New Testament that I had found puzzling since my youth. Why were the Jews depicted as a mob demanding the execution of one of their own, Jesus, while their hated rulers the Romans, i.e., Pontius Pilate, is portrayed as a righteous man pressured to give in to the mob’s demand?
This biblical episode is not trivial, as most scholars have traced the anti-Semitic ideology among many Christians, which even led to the Nazis’ Holocaust of 6 million Jews during World War 2, to this account in the New Testament. In my youth I heard of it: “The Jews are bad; they killed Jesus.”
If the Romans indeed invented the Jesus myth, they would have certainly portrayed themselves as just, even respecting the Jews so much Pilate gave in to the Jewish priests’ and mob’s demand.
But why did the “Jesus movement” grow to become one of the world’s largest organized religions?
The quite obvious answer is that it was embraced — even invented according to Atwill — as one of the major state religions of the Roman Empire, the most powerful empire at that time. The wily Roman Emperor Constantine the Great used it as a 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, and then the modern superpowers that included the United States, made Christianity also their state religions . European monarchies more easily ruled by brainwashing their subjects (as well as colonized peoples like as) that they were Jesus Christ’s s representatives on earth
That is also the reason why the other world major religion, Islam, grew. Allah would just have been a war-god in the warlike desert tribes, if hadn’t become the state religion first of the Arab Empires starting in the 7th century and then the Ottoman Empire that emerged in the 14th century and rivaled the Christian European empires.
Hinduism and Buddhism 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, attributes never used for the Buddha, Confucius, and Lord Krishna.