A man named Jesus or something like that 37

We will soon be writing again about Christianity. Before we do, we want to get Jesus of Nazareth out of the way as he has very little to do with the Christian religion, no matter what the Christians claim. The thinnest of threads connects the (probable) historical Jesus to the “Christ Jesus” who was born in the imagination of Christianity’s author, known to history as St. Paul.

The Jesus on whom Christianity built its essential fictions probably did exist.

Jesus was a common name at the time, the Greek for Joshua or Jeshua or Jesse or some such Hebrew name. Think of it as a name like Kevin or Juan or Ronald today – nothing special.

What is also probably true of this particular Jesus is that he was a preacher, that he had a following of some tens or hundreds, and now and then perhaps an audience of hundreds and possibly thousands. He was one of the preaching laymen of his time, a rabbi. It was a time when rabbis were becoming an increasingly important feature of religious life in Judea. They were pious men, “Hasidim” – not to be confused with members of the Hasidic movement of our time – who imparted religious knowledge and offered moral guidance. They were ordinary members of their local communities who supported themselves with various trades and occupations. They were not – and never became – priests. The priests were members of an hereditary caste whose duty was to perform the rituals of the Temple, and when the Temple was destroyed an active Jewish priesthood ceased to exist.

It has often been said that if Jesus had been of any real importance in the Judea of his day, there would have been records of what he said and did. Both the Romans and the Jews were record keepers, the Romans meticulously so. However, the absence of records doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Its more likely that they were deliberately destroyed; not by (pre-Christian) Romans who would have had no reason to do it, nor by Jews who would probably have liked to preserve them. The only group who would have had reason to destroy true records of the Rabbi Jesus were the Christians themselves, but when and what cannot be guessed.

The truth is that nothing is known of this Jesus with any certainty. From Josephus we get some evidence of his existence, a passage in one version of his famous History which many believe to have been a forged interpolation, and an anecdote about one James, “a brother of Jesus”, being stoned to death in 62 C.E.

We also know that some who followed Jesus in his lifetime had believed him to be the longed-for Messiah. (The Messiah was desperately hoped for in those years, and now and then a “spiritual” or military leader was declared to be him, the Annointed One, come to save them from Roman rule and taxes. He would be a human being, a descendant of King David.) We know that Jesus’s followers had believed this of him because they survived him and founded a religious sect, consisting entirely of law-abiding Jews, who would not give up the idea of his Messiahship even after his shocking and humiliating execution as an insurrectionist leader. His death by the Roman method of crucifixion, with a notice over his head mocking him as “King of the Jews”, is also a probable fact about him.

The members of the sect, known as the Nazarenes – and/or the Ebionites – believed that Jesus would come back in the flesh to fulfill his Messiahship. Most Jews at the time believed in bodily resurrection after death. (The ones who didn’t were the priests, who were also the aristocrats, including the royal family of the priest-kings who had ruled the nation for some generations before Judea became a Roman province.)

They thought it would happen quite soon, in their lifetimes. This optimistic group are said by Christians to have been the first “Christians”, in that they were followers of the “Christ” – “Christ” being the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. But they were not Christians in the sense that is meant by Christians: they did not believe that Jesus was God.

When the last of those who had known Jesus in his lifetime died without witnessing his return, another generation waited for the event. This exercise in patience and disappointment went on for some hundreds of years. None of them ever believed that Jesus was divine (except for an obscure break-away group of Ebionites in the fourth century).

And that is as much as we can say about “the historical Jesus”. How much the biblical Jesus resembles him, we can only guess.

We know nothing of his family, except the one brother James. Ingenious historians have worked out that he had a number of other brothers, one named Judas (or “Jude”) who might have been his twin. Twins enter into the rumors of his life which we know as the gospels. There we find one Thomas Didymus, for instance. As both “Thomas” and “Didymus” mean “twin”, we have a man named “Twin Twin” (which if not improbable is at least odd and certainly redundant).

We can conjecture further, without proofs. He would probably have been married since orthodox Jewish men were required to marry. He probably lived in the Galilee, a fertile region of Judea, in a time when the economy of the Roman Empire was doing particularly well. His family were unlikely to have been poor, and may have been wealthy.

Nothing that is reported of him suggests any extraordinary insight or notable originality of thought. His sayings and moral tales were the common currency of rabbinical teaching. (The miracles attributed to him – changing wine into water, raising the dead, walking on water etc. – were a standard set.) But he must have had what the Greeks call “charisma”, a special gift that attracted followers and made them believe he had a high calling.

And that’s about as much as we can know or reasonably suppose about Jesus of Nazareth. We deduce that he lived, that he preached and taught, that an unknown number of people had high expectations of his fulfilling an historic role in Jewish history but he did not live to do so, being crucified as an insurrectionist leader by the Roman authorities.

This thin conjectured record can be put away now on the shelf. It will not need to be taken down again. For what subsequently happened in the great world, the momentous historical events connected to his name, the invention of a religion that was to prove the scourge of his people, he was not to blame. How appalled such a devout Jew would have been if he could have foreseen the atrocious persecution of his people in his name!

The real man can be forgotten, as he has been forgotten. Very little of his history is necessary to the religion that was founded in his name; almost nothing but his death. He could only be an embarrassment to it after a fictitious figure, bearing his name and endowed with a biography tailored to prove that his life had been predicted by various Jewish prophets, was claimed to be God Incarnate by the adherents of a new religion: Christianity.

Jillian Becker   September 23, 2011