The Story of Jesus: Many Myths, Few Facts
In writing my book Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew I immediately faced a dilemma: Which Jesus needs to be restored?
The historical “facts” about Jesus range from sparse to nil, prompting the question, did Jesus exist, or was he a mythical invention? Historians are not much help. The Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote extensively about life in Judea at the time of Jesus, makes passing reference to a Rabbi Jesus. Some critics say that Church officials later embellished Josephus’ brief mention.
We learn very little in the biblical account of Jesus’ life, which opens the floodgates for speculation, spin, and flights of fantasy. We first hear about Jesus in two of the New Testament Gospels (Matthew and Luke) with the forecast of Jesus’ impending birth. In Luke (1:26-35) the Angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she is pregnant by the Holy Ghost. Next we meet Jesus at the nativity in Bethlehem, where he is born. According to Matthew (2:13-15), Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape King Herod’s order to kill all male babies under age two. They return to Nazareth a few years later — but we are given no details. In fact, so unreliable are the Gospels that the Gospel of Luke says the infant Jesus is taken to Jerusalem and then back to Nazareth — not Egypt (Luke 2:39).
Jesus promptly disappears and resurfaces at age twelve at the Temple in Jerusalem, where he is seen debating the rabbis during the Passover celebration. He vanishes again — this time for 18 years. Next, we meet him at age 30 at the River Jordan for his baptism by John the Baptist. The Gospels then narrate the story of his ministry over the following three years, culminating in the crucifixion.
If the sanctioned canonical Gospels were written by or orally passed along by disciples of Jesus who witnessed the events, as the Church maintains, why the absence of details about his life?
It’s also puzzling why Paul, the founder of Christianity, who brought Jesus’ teachings to the Gentiles, didn’t tell us more about Jesus the man, since he was a contemporary of Jesus. Paul, the Pharisee and student of the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel, was present at the stoning to death of Jesus’ disciple Stephen (Acts 8:57-59), which occurred only two years after the crucifixion. Even if Paul wasn’t familiar with all the details of Jesus’ life, surely the disciples would have been. Paul’s three meetings in Jerusalem with Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and Jesus’ brother James, add nothing about Jesus life. Why does Paul, the champion of Jesus and his teachings, tell only Paul stories and no Jesus stories?
So we are left with a matrix of unconnected dots — a matrix that demands more dots and more connections in order to reconstruct the complete picture. But despite this dearth of information and connections, there is no shortage of detailed accounts of Jesus’ life. Are they facts or fictions? You can take your pick from the smorgasbord of stories told by scholars, theologians, novelists, lay “experts,” and the man and woman in the street.
“Jesus never died on the cross,” wrote Hugh Schonfield in his popular 1965 book, The Passover Plot. Others have speculated that Jesus either wasn’t crucified or survived the crucifixion. Did Jesus continue to live and then migrate to India, where he influenced or absorbed Indian Vedic philosophy that God is within — and “all is one” — connected by a universal consciousness? In another account, Jesus brought his teachings from India to Egypt, where he initiated the Gnostic philosophy that produced the Gnostic Gospels, which the Church later condemned and attempted to destroy.
My colleague Hugh Colmer, an expert on ancient religions and mythology, endorses Tony Bushby’s The Bible Fraud that purports to tell “the truth about Rabbi Jesus and his twin brother, their birth, marriages and deaths.” It’s an exotic tale of Torah “secrets” and conspiracies far removed from the New Testament accounts.
What about Jesus’ sexuality? Was he sleeping with Mary Magdalene, as graphically described in Jose Saramago’s imaginative novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ? Or did the relationship go even further? A central theme of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, Sarah. In contrast to that thesis, Anglican Priest Paul Oestreicher offers evidence that Jesus was gay.
Anglican Priest Bruce Chilton in his book Rabbi Jesus confirms that Jesus was Jewish to the core: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.” Other scholars both Christian and Jewish have agreed. Yet classical artwork representations of Jesus tell a different story in which you will not find a hint of any Jewish connection in Jesus’ identity. Medieval and Renaissance artists invented a totally Christian Jesus — transforming Jesus, and his family into fair skinned blond latter-day Christians residing in palatial settings surrounded by latter-day Christian Saints and Christian artifacts, totally alien to their origins as orthodox working class Jews in a rural village in Galilee.
Nowhere are the debates about Jesus more heated than in the 2000-year-old controversy about who killed Jesus. The early Church claimed that the Jews collectively killed Jesus, one of the most illogical and bizarre notions considering that all of Jesus’ devotees were Jewish. In fact, without his Jewish followers no one would have ever heard of Jesus — or Christianity. Trumping “the Jews did it” claim, the Church conveniently ignored what is explicitly reported in the canonical Gospels: that God killed Jesus. Jesus states this over and over as part of divine prophesy. In other words, he says that it had to happen that way.
Now that the irrationality of the “Jews Killed Jesus” has been exposed the J’accuse finger is pointing to others. One recent book says Caiaphas, the leader of the Sanhedrin, in collusion with the Romans did it. Historian Reza Aslan in his new book, Zealot, concludes that the Romans crucified Jesus as an insurrectionist and a threat to Roman rule. T.V and radio host Bill O’Reilly will apparently second and endorse the “brutal Romans” for the crucifixion with “new evidence” in his forthcoming book, Killing Jesus.
These enticing, sometimes plausible — and never boring — narratives will continue to convince some and outrage others. We can expect more. The floodgates will not close until Middle Eastern deserts or caves reveal valid eyewitness accounts.
While we cannot be sure of the valid historicity of reports and descriptions of Jesus and his life — and may never know the historical truth — some “facts” are fairly certain. These “functional facts” are contained in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. Why functional facts? Because these are the “facts” that have framed, influenced, and conditioned what Christians believe about Jesus and Christianity, Jews and Judaism. Other “facts” have not had this historical power.
Biblical scholars report that at the time the Council of Hippo sanctioned 27 books for the New Testament in 393 C.E. there existed as many as a hundred or more alternative Gospels presenting descriptions of Jesus’ life and teachings different from the versions adopted by the Church. The Church condemned, burned, and banned them–even denying their existence. The discovery in the Egyptian desert in 1945 of the Nag Hamadi librarycontaining fifty-two Gnostic treatises, including several alternative Gospels, suggests that there were far more that have not survived.
Scholar Bart Ehrman, in his book Misquoting Jesus, documents that not only were many alternative Gospels destroyed and denied reproduction but that the sanctioned Gospels are inaccurate. Ehrman shows that in the process of oral transmission over decades, followed by translations from Coptic and Greek into Latin, many original accounts were lost or changed. Contributing to the problem of authenticity, he notes that no one has ever found an original copy of any of the books in the bible. Also, different scribes entered variations and also added their own beliefs or wishful thinking to the contents.
Although alternative Gospels may be appealing, convincing, inspiring, or may even reflect actual historical facts, they have had virtually no impact on what Christians believe; the New Testament “facts” have had almost exclusive impact.
But, as I argue in Jesus Uncensored, the “functional facts” of the canonical Gospels and the rest of the New Testament have been misread and misinterpreted. Moreover, the distortions were driven by Christian and Jewish leaders who were intent on imposing wedges to distance the two faiths as separate religions. In that process Jesus, the authentic dedicated practicing Jew, was lost. Restoring Jesus’ Jewish identity sets a firm foundation for Christians and Jews to celebrate a shared heritage despite differences.
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is the author of “Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew.” Website: click here.