Who was Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus Christ? This article discusses the historical details of his life from a variety of perspectives, conventional and alternative, and weighs the evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.
Introduction: The Founder of Christianity – or Its Inspiration?
If you ask most Christians who the founder of their religion was, they would say that it was Jesus Christ, without hesitation; after all, their religion is called Christ-ianity. But was Jesus really the first Christian – or was he really an itinerant Jewish carpenter and rabbi from the Galilee? And did Jesus really intend to found a new world religion, as the Great Commission passages from the Christian gospels suggest – or was he content simply to remain within the Jewish tradition, ministering to the lost sheep of Israel? Interestingly enough, passages supporting both positions can be found within the Christian gospels. I believe that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and did not intend to found a new world religion; after his crucifixion, his brother James, also known as James the Just, founded a Jewish movement dedicated to the teachings and spiritual legacy of their martyred founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Then, shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion and martyrdom, along came Paul and his followers, who went about founding a new religion in his name. And so, I believe that, more accurately speaking, Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish life that provided the inspiration for Christianity.
Jesus Christ: What’s in a Name?
Many Christians today might mistakenly assume that “Christ” was Jesus’ last name, and that his parents, Joseph and Mary, were Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Actually, our word “Christ” comes from the Greek Christos, which simply means, “Messiah”, or Ha Mashiach in Hebrew. But there’s a world of difference between Jewish and Christian notions of who the Messiah is supposed to be. In Judaism, the Messiah is supposed to be a divinely anointed priest / king who drives out the foreign invader, establishes home rule for the Jews, and ushers in a new Messianic Age in which Israel becomes a spiritual example and beacon to the nations. Because Jesus was crucified by the Romans before he could succeed in fulfilling this mission, Judaism sees Jesus as a failed Messiah. In the Christian gospels, however, Jesus tells his inquisitor, Pontius Pilate, that his Kingdom is not of this world. In other words, Christianity sees Jesus as a spiritual deliverer of all mankind from the universal enemies of sin and death. This stance, I believe, was due to the desire of Paul and his followers to take Christianity beyond the narrow confines of Judaism.
And so, rather than being his last name, “Christ” is a title, which Christianity saw as denoting his spiritual role as a deliverer from the universal enemies of sin and death; and so, the designation of Christ or Messiah took on an additional spiritual significance that it did not have in Jesus’ native Judaism – posthumously, that is, since Paul never actually met Jesus while he was alive. Even Jesus’ given name, Yeshuah, which became Latinized as Jesus, is no ordinary name; it, too is full of spiritual significance. YHVH, or Yahweh, also known as the Tetragrammaton, since it contains four sacred letters, is the most holy name of God in Judaism. If you insert the letter Shin in the middle of God’s name, converting Yahweh to Yehshuah, or Yeshuah, you get Jesus’ original name, which means “God is with us” in Hebrew; this is also the meaning of another name for Jesus, Emmanuel. As with so many other aspects of Jesus and his life story, the sacred overshadows the human and mundane.
Jesus of Nazareth / Jesus Christ: A Divided Legacy
In all probability, Jesus was from the tiny little town of Nazareth in the Galilee, even though the nativity narratives of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels have him being born in Bethlehem. It was said that the Messiah had to hail from Bethlehem, which was also known as King David’s City. In addition, “Bethlehem” means, “House of Bread” in Hebrew, which is an allusion to the astrological sign of Virgo, the sign of the Virgin – and Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Matthew has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem prior to Jesus’ birth, whereas Luke uses the historically questionable vehicle of a Roman census to get the holy family there. Wherever he was really born, Jesus’ base of operations was definitely the Galilee. However, the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus were often called Nazarenes, or Nazoreans; even today, a common word for the Christians in Hebrew is Natzorim, or “The Nazarenes”. The word, “Christian” was first coined in Antioch to describe the gentile followers of Jesus, and the name stuck. And so, Jesus of Nazareth denotes the Jewish side or legacy of Jesus, whereas Jesus Christ denotes the Christian side. Those who knew Jesus best, of course, were his original Jewish disciples and brethren.
Unfortunately, the original Jerusalem Jesus movement lost out in its bid for the future of Christianity, aided and abetted by the larger forces of history, such as the Roman holocaust of Judea and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. The original Jewish Christians had their own scriptures, and probably oral teachings that they received from their spiritual master as well. But sadly, none of those scriptures or teachings survive. All we are left with is the Christianity of Paul and his followers, so we can only speculate as to what exactly the original teachings of Jesus might have been. We know that Jesus’ original followers regarded him as the Messiah, but did not see him as being divine. Peter, in his sermon to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, calls Jesus a man who God favored by raising him up in his resurrection, but a man nonetheless. The Christian gospels, as they appear in the New Testament, are not biography or history in the true sense of the word, and they certainly aren’t eyewitness accounts. Our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written around 70 AD, almost four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; Matthew and Luke were written around 85 to 90 AD, and the Gospel of John was written around 100 AD. The gospels could be called theological portraits or memoirs of Jesus, drawn primarily from the oral tradition, with a heavy dose of mythological motifs and sacred allegory thrown in. They are teaching material for Christian theology and doctrine.
The original Jerusalem Church of the Jewish Jesus movement saw Jesus as a great prophet and spiritual teacher, but as only a man; therefore, it was his teachings that were important, and not any miraculous or supernatural details of his life story. Pauline Christianity, which cast Jesus in the mold of a dying and rising savior deity, after the fashion of the old Greco-Roman Mystery Religions, had Jesus performing many amazing miracles, healings and exorcisms, as well as being born of a virgin, and other things that would suggest his divine or superhuman nature and origins. After all, Jesus had stiff competition from the other ancient savior deities to contend with. But even beyond implying that Jesus had amazing spiritual powers, each one of the healing and miracle stories encodes, in symbolic form, various spiritual life lessons for the believer. In the sections that follow, I will go through the major phases or episodes of Jesus’ life story, contrasting the probable original Jewish Christian version with the later Pauline / Hellenized Christian version that has come down to us today.
Jesus’ Nativity: Human or Divine?
In all probability, the original Jewish Christians saw Jesus as being the product of a totally natural human birth, with his parents being Joseph and Mary. The fact that there was probably nothing remarkable or supernatural about Jesus’ birth is suggested by the fact that it is totally omitted in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first canonical gospel to be written. Having an adoptionist Christology, the Gospel of Mark starts off with Jesus’ baptism, and God’s adopting of him through His declaration that Jesus is His beloved son, in whom He is well pleased – that’s when the whole story starts for Mark. The only gospels that have nativity narratives are those of Matthew and Luke. Matthew has Joseph almost disowning Mary when he discovers that she is pregnant; in a dream that night, an angel tells Joseph that his wife is pregnant with the divine child Jesus. This little episode in Matthew comes closest to an apocryphal tale from the Jewish Talmud that Mary was actually pregnant by a Roman soldier named Pantera, who served time in Palestine, but was later transferred to the northern front in Germany, where he was killed. – 1.
Mark has no nativity story of Jesus, so we can assume that Mark saw nothing remarkable or unusual about Jesus’ nativity. Matthew and Luke both have nativity stories for Jesus, but they differ markedly in their specifics and details. In addition, both Matthew and Luke offer up genealogies for Jesus, which both show him descending from Adam, through King David, and finally to Joseph, although the specifics of the two genealogies differ in their details. But if Mary was impregnated with Jesus by God via the Holy Spirit, then Joseph, and the whole patrilineal succession preceding him becomes irrelevant, because God, and not Joseph, was Jesus’ true father. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, with its very high and exalted Christology, the Prologue, which parallels the creation account in Genesis in many ways, is so cosmic and exalted that the mundane details of how Jesus came into the world are totally irrelevant. And if the apocryphal tale from the Talmud is true, it would have given the young Jesus the sense of being a stranger to this world, and an outcast, and would have drawn him closer to God as his heavenly Father, to compensate for his biological father, who deserted him in his infancy.
While both the gospels of Matthew and Luke have nativity narratives, Luke gets quite elaborate with his pre-nativity narrative, going into the pre-nativity stories of both Jesus and his spiritual mentor John the Baptist. In short, you could say that Luke’s pre-nativity narrative is a paean of devotion to the Goddess, or the Divine Feminine, with its Magnificat. The visitation of Mary to the house of her cousin Elizabeth also adds a special touch of devotion to the Divine Feminine, which brought the savior Jesus Christ into this world. It could even be argued that the Gospel of Luke provided the main scriptural foundation for the great reverence and devotion that the older denominations of Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, have for the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, or the God Bearer. Although Mary has been called the Mother of God by many Christian believers, astute Christian theologians argue that Mary merely bore the infant physical form of Jesus Christ, who, as God the Son and the second person of the Christian Trinity, was fully coexistent and coeternal with God the Father before his birth. Religious skeptics would maintain that the whole virgin birth thing was merely a holy cow that was slapped on as a religious cover up for Mary’s conception of Jesus out of wedlock.
Growing Up Divine in First Century Palestine: The Infancy Gospels
The canonical gospels don’t have a lot of material on Jesus’ childhood; in fact, the only story pertaining to Jesus’ childhood is the episode from the Gospel of Luke in which Joseph and Mary lose Jesus in Jerusalem and return there to find him having discourse with the priests and elders in the Jerusalem Temple. To remedy this woeful lack of information on what is an important and crucial phase of anyone’s life story, the infancy gospels stepped in to fill the void. Think of the infancy gospels as the scriptural equivalent of matinee shows of the adventures of a divine Superboy, who had to mature in wisdom and the constructive use of his divine powers for truth, justice and the Christian Way. Or, you can also think of them as pious fiction that was composed to feed the devotional appetites of Christian believers hungering for anything relating to their beloved Savior. Although the infancy gospels never made it into the official canon of Christian scripture, they were much beloved in their day.
The most famous episode from the infancy gospels is when Joseph finds Jesus making little bird figurines out of clay, and scolds him for doing so, because it is the Sabbath, on which all work is forbidden by Jewish Law. Jesus then promptly claps his hands and says, “Go,” upon which the clay birds turn into real birds and fly away. This story is the most famous and well-known of the infancy gospel stories because it made it into the Muslim Quran; many Muslim theologians consider this to be Jesus’ greatest miracle. Jesus also gets into trouble with his playmates, cursing them and striking them dead; he is also wrongly accused when a playmate falls to his death by those who say that Jesus pushed him from the rooftop. Jesus promptly solves this dilemma by bringing the dead boy back to life; the risen dead boy then swears that Jesus was innocent, and he fell of his own accord. The young Jesus also has run-ins with prospective tutors who think they can teach him a thing or two; they are sorely humbled when the young Jesus points out to them glaring deficiencies in their own knowledge of matters mundane and divine. If you want to get clinical, there is also an episode from the Protoevangelion of James in which a midwife gazes up Mary’s vagina right after the birth of Jesus and exclaims, “It’s a miracle – the hymen is still intact!”
Jesus and John the Baptist: A Master and Disciple Relationship?
One key point on which the original Jewish Christian biography of Jesus would probably differ is in the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. The Christian gospels are inclined to portray Jesus as being John’s superior, since Jesus is divine; in fact, the later the gospel was written, the more the divine superiority of Jesus is emphasized, and the more humble and submissive is John’s attitude upon meeting and baptizing Jesus. So – did Jesus just need to be baptized by John to receive the descent of the Holy Spirit, and then get started on his divine mission, or was Jesus an actual disciple of John the Baptist, receiving prolonged spiritual instruction and training from him as well? The original Jewish Christian position probably favored the latter, because they had no vested interest in maintaining Jesus’ divinity. John was baptizing people in the Jordan River, not far from the Essene community of Qumran; was John an Essene – and if so, was Jesus also initiated into the Essene Order as well? The canonical gospels are deafeningly silent about the Essenes, so the Essenes may lie a lot closer to the origins of Christianity than is commonly assumed.
So – just how divinely superior was Jesus to John the Baptist? In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims the superiority of John:
I tell you, among those born of women, there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.
– Luke 7: 28
An interesting scriptural passage indeed. My guess is that the first part of the verse, in which Jesus proclaims the superiority of John, is probably authentic, and had a strong place in the oral tradition regarding Jesus’ teachings that Luke drew upon. The second half seems to have been thrown in as a kind of qualification or disclaimer added by Luke himself, reflecting his theological commitment to the divine superiority of Jesus. Think of this verse as the Christian equivalent of a paradoxical Zen Koan. Or, perhaps this was Luke’s way of saying that everyone, every human soul, is equal in the Kingdom of God.
The Mysterious Lost Years of Jesus: A New Age Bonanza!
Next, we come to the mysterious lost years of Jesus – those eighteen years or so between the Jerusalem Temple incident at age twelve and the start of Jesus’ public ministry around age 30. Astrologically speaking, this period is a very interesting one; Jupiter makes its first return to its natal position at around age twelve, and Saturn makes its first return to its natal position right before age thirty. Jupiter is the planet of expansion and exploring new horizons, whereas Saturn is the planet of commitment, discipline and maturity – that one is ready to start one’s life work. Jewish boys have their Bar Mitzvah at around age twelve, and the temple incident can certainly be seen as Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah – and if one reads the reviews of Luke, Jesus passed his with flying colors. In between these two milestones in life, a young person diligently learns all he can about his chosen craft, trade or profession, and about life in general, so we can broadly assume that that’s what Jesus did as well.
Where did Jesus go during those eighteen years, about which the gospels are conspicuously silent? What did he do, who did he study with, and how did he prepare himself for his public ministry? And why are the gospels so silent about this crucial phase of Jesus’ life? The theories and explanations for this silence range from the innocuous and matter-of-fact to the downright conspiratorial – and there are theological and dogmatic explanations for this silence as well. The most innocuous explanation is that the gospels simply didn’t consider this period in Jesus’ life to be significant or important enough to cover – that Jesus’ public ministry, from his baptism onwards, was what really mattered most to the gospel writers. The conspiratorial explanations range all over the map about what “they” don’t want you to know, and exactly who “they” are. The ordinary lay person would definitely assume that Jesus must have had one heck of an education to prepare him for all the mighty works he accomplished during his public ministry. The rigidly dogmatic Christian might believe that, since Jesus was God in human form, he didn’t need any special training to be able to do what he did; it just came naturally to him.
Of course, those who are involved in what is popularly called the “New Age” movement have all kinds of theories and explanations of where Jesus went and who he studied with. Most have Jesus heading eastward, either to Persia to study with the Magi (remember the three wise men?) or to India to study with Vedic rishis (sages) or yogis, or to study with Buddhist teachers and masters. Egypt also figures into the mix of possibilities, as does sailing off to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea to study with the Druids. The possibilities are endless, and one book I saw had Jesus doing all of the above – going everywhere and studying with everybody – and all this in an age that was long before modern jet travel or telecommunications technology. But how about a more homegrown, Jewish itinerary for the lost years? There surely must have been qualified Jewish Tzadiks (Teachers of Righteousness), sages or spiritual masters he could have studied with – and of course, one must not forget about John the Baptist either.
The Social Gospel: Jesus as a Spiritual Activist and Revolutionary
It’s common for modern Christians to have utopian notions of first century Palestine, where Jesus lived and taught, as being a rather bucolic, idyllic place, but that is clearly a fantasy and a misconception. Actually, the Roman occupation of Judea in the time of Jesus was one of the most brutal and oppressive political regimes the world has ever known. The masses of people were struggling under the yoke of a heavy tax burden that would be unimaginable to us today. The Roman Empire, like all empires before and since, cynically maintained their hold on power by favoring imperial elites and local collaborators who ruled at the expense of everyone else. Anyone who was considered a subversive or a threat to Roman rule was brutally killed, put down or vanquished; in addition to Jesus, hundreds, maybe even thousands, met their end by crucifixion, which was a specifically Roman method of torture and execution designed to terrorize the masses into submission.
Putting all considerations of religious doctrine aside, perhaps the most realistic way to look at Jesus and his ministry in first century Palestine is as a spiritual activist and revolutionary. That’s what Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King after him, understood and appreciated very well. For Jesus, everything he did in his public ministry under oppressive Roman rule had political implications; you might say that everything Jesus did to further the cause of spiritual justice and freedom was perceived as a threat to Roman rule. In addition, the hopes of the masses for a Messiah or deliverer from the oppressive Roman yoke ran high, and sometimes reached a fever pitch. The Maccabee brothers, some 150 years previously, had successfully driven out a usurping tyrant who was forbidding Jews to practice their religion, and perhaps the Israelites could do it again with the Romans. Even after the Roman holocaust of Judea and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the Jews continued to revolt; the Bar Kochba revolt, in 132 – 135 AD was the last gasp of Jewish resistance to Roman rule, which was brutally vanquished.
Given the oppressive political climate under which Jesus lived and worked, certain actions of Jesus, such as the cleansing of the temple, were, above all, political offensives. In driving the money changers out of the temple, Jesus was targeting the High Priest and the Sadducees, who were collaborating with the Romans, who saw this as a direct challenge to their hold on power. Of course, the cleansing of the temple has as much spiritual allegory and symbolism connected with it as it appears in the gospels, but modern Christians often overlook its political dimension. After Jesus cleansed the temple, he became a marked man by the priestly authorities and their Roman overlords, and it was only a matter of time before he would be eliminated. What modern Christians tend to forget is that crucifixion was a specifically Roman method of torture and execution that was usually reserved for those who were considered to be subversive or seditious against Rome. The sign at the head of Jesus’ cross, INRI, which was an anagram for Iesu Nazareno, Rex Iudaeorum, or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was purposely put there by the Romans to make Jesus a terrifying example to all who would rise up against Rome, and to mock Jesus for even trying.
If the Jews had really wanted to put Jesus to death on religious grounds, they would have done so by stoning. By the time the Christian gospels were written, the Roman holocaust of Judea was already history, and the Christians, for better or worse, had to portray the Romans in as positive a light as possible – for their own survival in a Greco-Roman world. Pontius Pilate is depicted as a just magistrate who really found no fault with Jesus, and didn’t want to put him to death; the truth is that Pilate was one of the most brutal and ruthless Roman administrators to ever rule Judea, on the testimony of contemporaries like Philo of Alexandria. -2. The Christian gospels are always trying to shift the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion onto the Jews, who, they say, condemned him for religious reasons, but the blame for Jesus’ death really rests with the Romans. The whole political dimension and ramifications of Jesus’ ministry and life work have been the victim of a great and systematic cover up by Pauline Christianity.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, his real motive and agenda for doing so may very well have been to make his bid for power, and to incite a popular rebellion against Roman rule. And cleansing the temple was part of this plan. Jesus had the Messianic qualifications, being a direct descendant of King David. But Jesus and his movement were brutally vanquished, just as many other Messianic contenders before him had been. This really sent a lot of Jesus’ disciples for a loop, since they fully expected to be co-administrators with Jesus in God’s Kingdom. The Pauline Christians came up with their own formulation or explanation for Jesus’ tragic demise, and what it all meant: Jesus died for your sins, and it was all part of God’s plan. But heck – why accept that heavy burden of original sin and substitutionary atonement when there’s another, much simpler explanation: that it wasn’t that hard for Jesus, a caring, compassionate spiritual activist and revolutionary, to wind up on the wrong side of the law during the brutal and oppressive Roman occupation of Judea and get crucified for his troubles?
The original Jewish Jesus movement, the Jerusalem Church, headed by James the Just, the brother of Jesus, was originally a familial dynastic spiritual movement within Judaism, and probably a nationalistic movement of resistance to Roman rule as well. It was dedicated to preserving the original teachings and spiritual legacy of its martyred founder, Jesus of Nazareth. And it probably accepted the much simpler and more straightforward explanation for Jesus’ crucifixion and martyrdom that I presented above, or some close facsimile of it, seeing Jesus as a spiritual hero who made the ultimate sacrifice in his fight for spiritual justice. In much the same way, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King also died martyr’s deaths. As I will explain elsewhere in this website, Judaism honors the spiritual principle of individual responsibility for one’s actions and choices, and does not believe that one individual can die for the sins of another. Substitutionary atonement is a peculiarly Christian doctrine. The great irony of it all is that Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual activist and revolutionary who rose up against the brutality and oppression of Roman rule, had his spiritual teachings and legacy co-opted by the very Roman Empire he rose up against when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the establishment religion of Rome.
See? Jesus ultimately triumphed over the Roman Empire, because today, some two thousand years later, the Roman Empire is long gone, and Christianity is still going strong!” say devoted Christian believers. But really, unrelated to Christianity or any other religion, it seems like empires the world over have gone through similar life cycles of birth, growth, zenith, decline and fall, and that no empire in history has lasted much more than a thousand years maximum. It could be argued that the Roman Catholic Church is a kind of vestige or phantom of the Roman Empire after it officially adopted Christianity as its establishment religion. After all, religions last much longer than empires; of all areas of human activity and endeavor, religions are the most conservative and resistant to change because people are naturally extremely prudent and cautious when the fate of their eternal soul is at stake. And it seems that, whatever the explanation or rationale offered by Paul and his followers, Christianity wound up adopting a lot of the religious forms and allegories of the old Mystery Religions that had preceded it; this is known as religious syncretism, and it has been going on for a long, long time.
The Crucifixion, the Resurrection and Its Aftermath
The crucifixion, as with the whole Jesus story as presented in the gospels, is loaded with spiritual symbolism and allegory. Jesus Christ has been called the archetype of the human soul or Higher Self, and in the crucifixion, Jesus is going through what all human souls who ever lived must ultimately face: their own death or mortality. Encoded in the crucifixion story, in symbolic or allegorical form, are esoteric instructions for all souls on how to navigate the transition called death. Jesus is the soul going through death, and his disciples, and how they react and behave in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, are all actors in a big mystery drama, symbolizing universal human reactions to the phenomenon of death. Death is a natural process that all people must go through, yet the Christian religion, as it has grown and evolved in many of its forms, seems to be in denial of this natural process, in one way or another.
Paul wrote that the wages of sin is death, and that’s a whole metaphysical can of worms right there. Jesus’ resurrection, according to many, if not most Christians, proves that he was divine, and that he paid the price to atone for the sins of humans the world over. But I have a question for Christians everywhere: are you more spiritually focused on the dying and crucified Christ, or on the risen Christ? If your focus is more on why Christ had to die, then I believe that your focus is more on the negative side of things, with the danger of Christianity becoming nothing more than a death cult to you. But if you are more focused on the risen Christ, then your focus is more positive, on the eternal life that awaits you on the other side of death. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” is the message of the two angels at Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24: 5). During our sojourn here on earth, we get too attached to the physical, to the body, which ultimately perishes; Jesus, as the archetype of the human soul, has moved on to eternal life.
It is said that without the resurrection, there would be no Christianity; to most Christians, the resurrection proves that Jesus was the Divine Son of God. Yet, if we carefully read Peter’s speech to the multitudes on the Day of Pentecost, which appears in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, Peter says that God raised Jesus from the dead; in other words, Jesus was a man who God favored by raising him up in his resurrection. This fits in very well with certain passages from the gospels in which Jesus says that of himself, he can do nothing, except via the power of God flowing through him. The Eastern Orthodox Church, which rejects the whole penal substitution theory of atonement and salvation that was put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in eleventh century England, which has so plagued Western Christianity in all its forms ever since, puts the resurrection this way: the spiritual Life Force within Jesus was so strong that death could not contain him. The Paschal Troparion, an Orthodox Easter hymn, says that Jesus trampled down death with death. – 3. This is a much more positive and life affirming view of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and one that I can accept.
Did Jesus Survive the Crucifixion?
Although this theory may sound a bit wild and farfetched, there are some who have put forth the theory that Jesus physically survived the crucifixion, and went on to live to a ripe old age. This theory does not sit well, of course, with those who base their Christian faith rigidly on the penal substitution theory of atonement and salvation – in other words, those who believe that Jesus had to die on the cross in our place in order to give us redemption – which is actually a whole lot of Christians. But, if you take a close look at what actually happened on the day of crucifixion, and break things down step by step, it’s not as farfetched as it seems at first. Consider the following:
When the Romans crucified their victims, they usually left them up on the cross for days, not hours; it usually took crucifixion victims at least a couple of days to die, and the slow agony of the death is what made crucifixion so terrifying of a spectacle to watch. Jesus was only up on the cross for a matter of hours – six to nine hours is the usual estimate – and then taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and laid in his garden tomb.
While Jesus is up on the cross, he complains that he is thirsty and is offered a sponge soaked in vinegar to slake his thirst (Matthew 27: 48, Mark 15: 36, John 19: 29). The theory goes that what was offered up to Jesus by his disciples was not pure vinegar, but actually vinegar laced with soporific herbal drugs like Opium, designed to make Jesus appear dead when he actually wasn’t. Shortly after that, Jesus utters his final words and gives up the ghost; he is then taken down from the cross and buried.
Crucifixion was an extremely slow and agonizing death, and the Roman soldiers facilitating it often broke the victim’s legs; this would cause the victim’s body to sag downwards, thereby increasing the tension and pressure on the arms, and constricting the ribcage, making it much harder for the victim to breathe. Jesus’ legs were not broken, so his death was not hastened in that brutal manner (John 19: 33).
Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Nicodemus prepares the body, bringing a hundred weight of a mixture of Myrrh and Aloes to anoint his whole body with before wrapping him up in linen cloth (John 19: 38 – 40). Now, any good herbalist knows that a mixture of Myrrh and Aloes – that is, if Nicodemus used Bitter Aloes (Aloe vera, the True Aloe), and not Fragrant Aloes (Aquillaria agallocha / Lignum Aquillariae, or Fragrant Aloes Wood, which is used in incense, perfumery and embalming); but since only Aloes is mentioned, we may assume that this means the true or bitter Aloes – is one of the best herbal combinations to speed up the healing and regeneration of wounds. But if Jesus was actually dead at that point, any medicinal mixture to speed up the healing of wounds would have been totally worthless and ineffective.
Many believe that the Shroud of Turin was the actual burial shroud that held the body of Jesus. In his book, Jesus Lived in India, author Holger Karsten goes into considerable detail about the chemical analysis of the shroud, and maintains that scientists discovered that, at the moment of “burial”, Jesus’ body was actively bleeding and sweating – and he reminds us that dead bodies don’t bleed, and dead bodies don’t sweat. So, the conclusion is that Jesus was not dead when he was wrapped in the shroud – which is congruent with the Myrrh and Bitter Aloes theory as well.
Jesus was in the tomb for three days – which is also a good amount of time for his wounds to heal and regenerate considerably with the Myrrh and Aloes. Many skeptics about the resurrection theorize that, during the night, the gardener came along to role the stone away, and a couple of disciples helped Jesus exit from the tomb, taking him to a place of safety.
Two popular books have appeared in recent years that put forth the theory that Jesus survived the crucifixion. The first is Jesus Lived in India by Holger Karsten, and the second is The Passover Plot by Hugh Schonfield. If it was indeed a plot, as the title of Hugh Schonfield’s book suggests, a core inner circle of Jesus’ best friends and disciples, such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, had to be in on it, and helping to facilitate it. Hugh Schonfield paints the picture of a Jesus who was very punctilious to act out, in his own life and deeds, prophetic signs concerning the Messiah in a conscientious effort to fulfill the old prophecies and thereby inspire faith in the people. Holger Karsten has a more New Age orientation, and has Jesus going off to India, more specifically to Kashmir, after his crucifixion. If you were Jesus after the crucifixion, where would you go? Maybe the best move would have been to head eastward, out of Roman lands, to evade the empire that crucified you. A few have suggested that Jesus and Mary Magdalene, with baby Sara in tow, set off from Alexandria, Egypt in a rudderless boat bound for the shores of southern France, with Joseph of Arimathea at the helm.
Holger Karsten’s thesis that Jesus went off to Kashmir is very interesting; he didn’t just make it up, but researched and discovered that there is actually a local Kashmiri tradition of Jesus living there and dying at a ripe old age. There is even what is said to be the tomb of Jesus, or Issa, as he is known in Islam, in Kashmir. The tomb is in Srinagar, and is called Roza Bal. Actually the theory that Jesus is buried there is a controversial one, even among the local Muslims, because the Mulsim Quran states that God took Jesus directly up to himself in heaven from the cross. Anyway, you can read more about this tomb in the following Wikipedia article:
Was Jesus Married? Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and Family Man
If I am to touch on all the alternative theories regarding the biography of Jesus, I would be remiss if I were not to mention the possibility that Jesus was married, and was a family man. This possibility is another one that makes many, perhaps even most, Christians bristle with indignation, to even suggest that Jesus, a paragon of spiritual purity and virtue, was tainted by sexual relations. After all, Adam and Eve only began to beget and procreate after they committed the original sin of eating from the forbidden fruit. In Roman Catholicism, there is the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not only a virgin herself, but was also immaculately conceived in a pure, sexless manner, thus fully insulating and separating her from the taint of sex and sin. And so, the whole idea of Jesus leading a normal conjugal life flies in the face of a Holy Family of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, mirroring the Holy Trinity as being totally divine and sexless. But, if we are to accept the fact that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, most Jewish men in Jesus’ day, perhaps nearly all of them, were married and had families – so why would Jesus be any different? As a whole, the Jewish religious tradition was a lot more accepting of the usual impulses of human nature, including the sexual ones, and a lot more positive concerning sexuality, the body and the flesh than the Christian tradition has been. So why wouldn’t Jesus be married?
And if Jesus were indeed married, said Gnostic scholar Marvin Meyer, his wife and life mate surely would have been Mary Magdalene. “Be fruitful and multiply,” says God to Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis – and Jewish men took that commandment seriously. And so, if Jesus were married, it is quite possible that he fathered a child before he was crucified. And so, this leads directly into the whole theory of the Holy Bloodline of Jesus Christ – that there are actually direct descendants of Jesus Christ who are still alive today. The theory goes, as beautifully put forth in the beginning of the book The Woman With the Alabaster Jar by Margaret Starbird, that Mary Magdalene and her infant daughter Sara set of from Alexandria, Egypt in a rudderless boat, guided by Joseph of Arimathea, bound for the southern coast of France, where a cult of devotion to Mary Magdalene still exists to this day. Mary Magdalene’s daughter Sara eventually grows up and marries into the royal Merovingian line of French kings, and the Holy Bloodline is passed on.
Another recent book that made quite a sensation was Holy Blood, Holy Grail. The authors of this book take the whole Merovingian bloodline theory and really run with it, showing how the underlying power struggle between the Catholic Church, which maintained the celibacy of Jesus, on the one hand, versus the Merovingian bloodline and their supporters on the other, was actually behind many of the dynastic power struggles of the French and other European royal houses. Although most believe that the Holy Grail was the cup that Jesus used to pour wine into at the Last Supper, the authors maintain that the real Holy Grail was the cup of Mary Magdalene’s womb, which received the bloodline of Jesus Christ. One may criticize this book for having an overly clandestine and conspiratorial cloak and dagger approach to things, but we must also remember that medieval Europe was a place where one could get burned at the stake for having beliefs or loyalties to anyone or anything other than the Roman Catholic Church.
It is said that, in the early church, Mary Magdalene had the most superb understanding of Jesus and his teachings, and that she was the Apostle to the Apostles; in fact, this is the central theme of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. The Gnostic Gospel of Philip states that Jesus loved Mary more than all the other disciples, and used to kiss her frequently on the mouth. In the Gnostic scripture, the Pistis Sophia, Mary Magdalene figures quite prominently, and many questions are addressed to her. But eventually, the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church took over, and by the sixth century AD, Mary Magdalene was reduced to the status of being nothing more than a penitent prostitute. Of all the forms and branches of early Christianity, the Gnostics were the ones who revered Mary Magdalene and the Divine Feminine the most; another one of their favorite goddess figures was Sophia, or Divine Wisdom. One of the most important Gnostic sacraments was the Hieros Gamos, or the Holy Marriage, also known as the Bridal Chamber, which was actually the marriage of the inner masculine and feminine principles within the individual aspirant.
Jesus, Man or Myth? The Quest for the Historical Jesus
In recent years, and quite in keeping with the quest for objective facts and data that typifies the modern age, there has arisen the quest for the historical Jesus. Briefly put, the quest for the historical Jesus is an effort to sift out the facts, or what is historically reliable about the life of Jesus, from all the mythological motifs, symbolism and allegorical material that has accrued around him, and attached to him. For example, in recent years, The Jesus Seminar was convened, which was a committee of biblical scholars who set about trying to identify which of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Christian gospels were actually said by him, versus which were falsely attributed to him, or were spurious or of dubious credibility. Although the first century Roman world was highly literate in terms of written historical record keeping, it was also tremendously handicapped in that it lacked modern recording technology, which is more objective and fact based. Just think – a historian back then could not take a tape recorder to record a famous person’s speech; even if he was an eyewitness to the event, all he could do was to take notes as best as he could, and then go home and try to reconstruct a facsimile of the actual speech from memory. Historically speaking, the gospel writers were even more handicapped, since they relied principally on the oral tradition.
But even so, to what extent were the gospel writers faithful to the oral tradition, and at what point did they begin to inject their own theological or allegorical teaching material? This is a very thorny and controversial question indeed, and as I said at the beginning of this article, with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as they have come down to us in the Christian gospels, the spiritual, symbolic and allegorical seems to overshadow the mundane facts at every turn. How do you sift through it all, and separate the facts from the myths – or sacred allegories, if you prefer? I have no doubt that religious syncretism was high in the minds of the gospel writers, who wanted to give their gentile audiences a good, generous helping of the old Greco-Roman myths they were raised on in their gospel stories about Jesus and his wondrous deeds. If the stories about Jesus were not identical to the old Greco-Roman myths, at least they were evocative of them, involving the same basic motifs. Regarding how one goes about separating fact from myth when it comes to Jesus Christ, there are three basic positions that one can take:
Historicists are those who accept the whole of what the gospels relate about Jesus as being literally or historically true; these people are also called literalists. Of course, this contingent consists mainly of conservative, dogmatic, fundamentalist Christians, who accept every word of the Bible as being literally and historically true, and the inerrant Word of God. This was also a big selling point for Christianity in its PR efforts to recruit followers in the early centuries of the Christian era: The old myths about the Greco-Roman gods are just that – myths only – whereas the stories of Jesus as recorded in the gospels are literally true; and yes, Jesus Christ really did die to atone for our sins, showing that God really does care about us. The lower classes of Roman society were easily converted by this kind of talk, but the educated classes remained skeptical; many prominent Greco-Roman intellectuals, like the philosopher Celsus and the physician Galen, wrote incendiary treatises attacking Christianity as a recent superstition.
In the middle of the road – and there is a lot of grey area on the spectrum here – are those who believe that there really was an itinerant Jewish carpenter and rabbi named Jesus, or Yeshuah, who lived and taught in first century Palestine, and who was crucified by the Romans. This Jesus, they maintain, was the historical kernel around which all the later mythological and allegorical accretions were added. And Jesus doesn’t stand alone; history is full of other larger than life figures around whom a body of fantastic myths and legends accrued. This is the basic position that I take in my assessment of Jesus’ life and his spiritual legacy. You might call these people “middle of the roaders”, for want of a better term.
And finally, you have the Mythicists – those who believe that the whole Jesus story is pure myth, without any kernel of historical truth. They have seen how the mythological, symbolic and allegorical overshadows every deed and event in the life of Jesus as recorded in the Christian gospels and have said, “What the heck – it’s all myth!” These people are quick to point out all the striking similarities between Jesus Christ and all the demigods, heroes and savior deities who preceded him – and these similarities are, quite frankly, uncanny and amazing.
Although many Christian preachers have called the historical evidence for Jesus and the miracles he did incontrovertible, the truth is quite a different story; actually, the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, or Jesus of Nazareth, is quite sparse and scanty, and this in an age that kept pretty good historical records. Much is made of what is called the Flavian Testimony, or the Testimonium Flavianum in Latin, which was purportedly written by Flavius Josephus, a Romanized Jew who was adopted into the Flavian imperial family:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, among the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
– Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3: 3 – 4.
Although the authenticity of this reference to Jesus is controversial, the prevailing scholarly opinion is that it is at least partially authentic, with some possible interpolations put in by Christian scribes. Some scholars, such as Geza Vermes, consider the passage entirely authentic to Josephus. -4. At any rate, this is the main reference to Jesus by one of his contemporaries outside of the Christian gospels. The other main thing that vouches for the historical existence of Jesus is his brother James, also known as James the Just, who, along with Peter and John, headed up the Jerusalem Church. James convened the Council of Jerusalem in or around 50 AD, which is documented in the 15th chapter of Acts; Paul as well as other early Church fathers also refer to him. – 5.
Frankly speaking, that’s about all the historical evidence outside the Christian gospels that supports the historical existence of Jesus. On the other side of the coin, there are facts and factors that seriously suggest that, perhaps, Jesus didn’t really exist. The first and most obvious and pervasive piece of evidence is how the mythical and allegorical overshadows the mundane, objective reality of the deeds and events in the Jesus story at every turn – so much so that the simplest explanation is that the whole Jesus story was entirely made up from mythological and allegorical material, without a kernel of historical truth in it. The second major fact that seems to weigh in against the existence of a historical Jesus is the fact that Philo of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Jesus, and who wrote extensively about the Word or Logos, trying to find common ground between Greek philosophy and his native Judaism, never once mentions Jesus. With the Prologue of John’s gospel declaring Jesus to be the Word made flesh, you would think that Jesus would have been “right up Philo’s alley”, so to speak. And it didn’t take long for news to travel the short distance from Judea, where Jesus lived and ministered to the people, and Alexandria Egypt, where Philo lived, even way back in the first century.
And so, I leave it to you to weigh the evidence for yourself, both pro and con, and come to your own conclusion as to whether or not Jesus really existed. Within every Christian, there is an internal Jesus, a Christ of Faith, and exactly who and what that internal Christ of Faith is, and what his existence depends upon, varies from person to person, or one Christian believer to the next. Some may feel that the existence of a historical Jesus is absolutely essential to their faith in him, whereas others may not really care one way or the other. I leave it up to you to discover which kind of believer you are, and how essential, or unnecessary, the existence of a historical Jesus is to you personally.