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Quote of the Day: Who was Jesus?

bart ehrman

There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth has been the most influential person in the history of the world.   The church founded on his name shaped the history of Western Civilization, and over two billion people worship him today.  And yet, because of the nature of our sources, it is surprisingly difficult to know what he actually said and did.

Jesus is thought to have died around 30 CE.   He is not referred to in any Greek or Roman sources of the first century, and only briefly in our major Jewish source of the period, the historian Josephus.  The earliest Christian references are from the New Testament, but most of the twenty-seven books say nothing about his words and deeds.

The four Gospels are by far our most important sources and these certainly do contain significant historical information.  But they are also theological reflections on the meaning of his life and death, less concerned to report bare facts than to reflect on their meaning.  Historians work diligently to get behind these reflections to determine what Jesus actually said, did, and experienced.

It is clear that Jesus was raised in a small hamlet, Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel.  He was born sometime around the turn of the Common Era (4 BCE ?) in a relatively large family with brothers and sisters.  We know nothing definite of his life and activities as a boy and young man, other than what we can learn from archaeology and inference.  Jews in this region spoke Aramaic; Nazareth was impoverished with a small population (a couple of hundred people?); houses were roughly constructed, small, and crowded; there was no synagogue building, school, or public building of any kind; people were uneducated, lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and as a rule did not travel.

We do know that as an adult (around 30 CE?)  Jesus left Nazareth to participate in the movement of a prophet called John the Baptist who was urging his followers to undergo a ritual of water baptism for cleansing of their sins because God was soon to intervene in the world to destroy all that was opposed to him in order to bring a new kingdom on earth where evil would be destroyed and only good would prevail.  Jesus left his home, family, and work to be baptized by John, and almost certainly became his follower.

Eventually Jesus split off to engage in his own itinerate preaching ministry.  He gathered a small group of followers and soon chose twelve to be his inner circle.  The Gospels contain numerous accounts of great miracles that he did: healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the forces of natures, and raising the dead.   It is not clear if such stories – commonly attributed to great Sons of God in antiquity – originated during his lifetime or only later.  He spent a good deal of his time teaching, and, like most Jewish teachers at the time, had heated disagreements with others about the proper interpretation of the law of Moses.

— Dr. Bart Ehrman, Who was Jesus?, November 29, 2019

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    It is amazing to think that this mythology became a major religion, controlling people’s lives, some people willingly devoting their lives to it while others unwillingly served under its oppression.

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    I disagree with Dr. Ehrman on Jesus’ existence. Of Josephus’s two references, one is clearly a forgery, text inserted later into the history of Pilate. The other is so fleeting that it might not be The Jesus at all. Jesus (or Joshua) was a very common name and the reference was about James. A later scribe added “the christ” when Josephus said James was the brother of Jesus. That is a lot to hang Jesus’ existence on. If you were to use the New Testament as a proof, and most historians would not use the source document to prove the veracity of the source document, the earliest references are from Paul, and he never references an earthly Jesus, it is always a celestial Jesus. The Gospels which came after Paul look as though the writers were trying to create a ‘backstory.’ Consider also that Jesus ranks very high on the Rank-Raglan index and others figures that rank high on that index are all fictional. Jesus is a myth and Dr. Ehrman is wrong on this point.

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    Brunetto Latini

    Hard to see how Paul’s “celestial Jesus” “died for our sins, according to the scriptures, that he was buried …”

    I sometimes think people who make broad claims about the Bible, proving that they never read the Bible, should just find a better hobby than skepticism.

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    Brunetto Latini

    I also wonder sometimes whether unbelief that’s dependent on dismissing the historical Jesus as a myth is any sounder than faith that’s dependent on dismissing modern science.

    You don’t want to deal with hard truth or make an honest choice about it, so you just ridicule it as mythology.

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      Brian Vanderlip

      Greetings Bruno, Regarding the historicity of Jesus: My interest is not particularly piqued by whether or not Jesus was indeed a person in verifiable history or not… Seems to me as a layman reader that he probably existed but my concerns can be found far more involved in the stories and claims about the Jesus figure, particularly with regard to his otherness, that he is said to have raised the dead and walked on water. Magic Jesus, if one’s faith depends on the loaves and fishes magic, now that phenomenon is what fascinates me. What is in our biped makeup that allows us to be willingly demeaned by Christian ideas, our fallen natures (for instance) and our willingness to be ordered around by preachers we know are not well-read but simply have the character of a sargeant and a big mouth. What happens to people to allow this kind of self-harm and what gets into people to want to harm others?
      These are queries that continue to loop in my heart and head. And when I know from the stories written that Paul went walking on the road and had himself some visions and messages from God, then for me, that is a red flag in terms of Paul’s authority. I worked for many years with folks who have talked with God and get messages directly from God and I choose to leave that be as I see it, delusionary thinking/feeling. It is clear to me that Paul, like other men of his time, had archaic ideas about life, about women and the rights of human beings. Whether or not Jesus really walked out of Nazareth has no bearing on these matters for me. Should some magic man/woman present themselves with demonstrable proofs and reasons for me to feel and think otherwise, then most certainly, I’m present for the challenge. Bring it on! So far though, I see far more damage being done by Belief, than I do active good. I remain in support of those who choose to accept a belief in Jesus/God providing they do not impose their convictions and give their life to service rather than bullying. As for what you call the “hard truth”, well, there’s the rub. Whose hard truth? Finally, for now, if I learned that there was a man called Jesus who did in fact perform verifiable miracles and said ‘follow me”, I would not be terribly inclined to be a follower any more than I follow Pablo Neruda, whose poetry changed my life in ways. One can live with and in deep admiration of certain aspects of human beings without becoming excessive and evangelical. Moderation is an accomplishment in human life as I see it. When Jesus said, follow me, what was the heart message he was offering? An interesting Jesus is one who would be shocked and dismayed to be worshipped as he is in the Baptist Church. He would probably relate more to an Islamic view of his life than any Western Christian view.

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    Brunetto Latini

    By “hard truth”, I meant truth that’s hard to accept, for whatever reason. If you’re an evangelical, it’s evolution. If you claim Jesus never existed, it seems obvious that the fact there’s a historical basis for Christianity is a truth you’d rather didn’t exist.

    My hard truth was that there’s no place in the Christian religion for me. I think it’s ludicrous to assert there was never a real Jesus of Nazareth. But whether the real Jesus were the Son of God or a man later defied by his followers is something that’s irrelevant to me. I am condemned by the Christian religion for what I am. So I will never again be a Christian. That’s a choice I made, and I didn’t dodge it by saying there is/was no Jesus.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Thanks for clarifying, Brunetto Latini. I am sorry that the Christian church is so hateful but it makes complete sense that you would be ‘corrected’ for your ‘transgressions’ even if those ‘sins’ are not truly sin at all and your transgressions just your individuality. Individuality is an evil thing in the church: We are all to conform to mould created by the local preacher acting on behalf of God. Conform and be properly churched! This means betray your true self and call yourself evil and so forth. Christianity is a sickness that is attractive and very easy (as you say) for many people. Just as a person who survives child abuse can easily finds themselves being victimized when they are older, so too did many of us survive very religious childhoods only to find ourselves walking into church as young adults. as if there was something worthwhile to be had there. (Therapy was an enormous help to me in this regard!) Best wishes, Brunetto. I appreciate your comments here. Thank-you for sharing.

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    Steve Ruis

    Re “It is clear that Jesus was raised in a small hamlet, Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel.” What he should have said is that “According to the gospel narratives, Jesus …” because it is not clear that Jesus even existed.

    And, one has to ask: why would a god who was adept at creating fully grown adults (Adam and Eve) need to make a baby? Obviously Jesus had nothing to learn from a childhood, so 30 years of existence was wasted until he began his “mission.”

    Also the fact the both Matthew and Luke were perfectly comfortable making up fictional birth narratives for the “Baby Jesus” indicates that they were perfectly comfortable inventing stories out of whole cloth.

    People are still taken up in what the Bible has to say, but have glossed over why those books were written in the first place and why no “authors” wrote of Jesus from direct experience. Surely there were a great many of these people, yet none of them actually wrote about “what Jesus told me.” There were scribes and rich people converting to Christianity and none of them thought to go find those people and interview them? And nobody thought it would be a good idea to write down Q or any other “sayings” that people heard from His lips? Mind boggling!

    It is clear that Paul’s letters were written to churches (meaning congregations, not buildings) expecting those letters to be copies and circulated … fully decades before the first gospel showed up. Paul could “afford” a scribe. The “churches” could afford a scribe. But no one who traveled with Jesus could?

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Bruce Gerencser