By Douglas Anele
Picking up our analysis from where we temporarily suspended it penultimate week, James D. Tabor questions the alleged supernatural origin of Jesus’ conception through a careful reading of the gospels in the light of his archaeological and historical researches. He suggests that the virgin birth story could be an attempt to address a shockingly awkward situation – Mary’s pregnancy before her marriage to Joseph.
Accordingly, he proposes the tantalising possibility that Jesus probably was the illegitimate child of a Jewish Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius AbdesPantera. Going through his re-reading of New Testament accounts about Jesus’ birth and ancestry, it is obvious Tabor does not accept the nativity story as an accurate or factual representation of real occurrences. His work cited earlier uses a blend of bold speculation and disciplined archaeological investigation to distil the probable events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry.
Concerning the mythological dimension of Christmas, the core idea behind it is the virgin birth of Jesus recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Now, in Jewish tradition such a conception is an aberration, for belief in the possibility of pregnancy leading to childbirth without the natural process of copulation between a man and woman seems far-fetched.
Nevertheless, it developed into a cornerstone of theological dogma in early Christianity, such that for millions of believers today “any suggestion that Jesus was conceived through the normal process of human sexual reproduction, even if somehow sanctified by God, is viewed as scandalous if not outright heresy.”
The belief that certain human beings (almost always men) were fathered by supernatural entities or Gods was commonplace in ancient Greco-Roman and Mediterranean cultures. Examples include Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great. These paradigmatic individuals are separated from ordinary mortals by their supernatural births, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death.
A plausible conjecture with respect to Jesus is that his pioneer followers, convinced that he was as exalted and heavenly as any of the Mediterranean heroes and Gods, appropriated existing stories of supernatural birth and applied it to the Nazarene, an effective strategy which must have attracted adherents of other pre-existing religions having the same belief as the emerging Christian faith.
The apotheosis of Jesus goes even deeper: with time he became transformed in the religious consciousness of his adherents into the eternal son of God as part of the Christian Trinitarian Godhead. The noted British historian, Arnold Toynbee, in Mankind and Mother Earth, has chronicled the astonishing labyrinthine metamorphosis of an apparently powerless carpenter into a human-saviour God as Pauline Christianity absorbed the mythological elements of primitive Mediterranean religions, especially of Egyptian pharaohs begotten from their mothers by a God.
It must be mentioned in passing that, on the evidence of Christian scriptures, Jesus himself like any typical pious Jew of his time rejected the suggestion that he was divine in any sense.
As we noted at the very beginning, Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. However, there are scholars who think that he never existed and that the foundation of Christianity is largely fictional. For instance, the German scholar, Bruno Bauer, developed the view that Christianity is a literary invention, a product of the disintegrating Roman Empire created from the merger of stoic philosophy and Jewish dogmatism.
He affirms that Jesus the preacher or teacher was a figure of fiction presented by Mark, and later Matthew and Luke, whereas Jesus the logos was the brainchild of John [not the apostle] who was influenced by Philo of Alexandria. Bauer’s contemporary and compatriot, David Friedrich Strauss, published in 1835 a very controversial book, Life of Jesus.
In it he claims that the gospel story is fiction built around a historical figure and based largely on the contrived fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies. George Brandes, in his Jesus A Myth, submits that Jesus never lived and that the legends concerning him merely endow a composite figure with mythical attributes. The acclaimed mathematician, logician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, avers that “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ existed at all, and if he did we do not know anything about him.”
More recently, Richard Cevantis Carrier, the author of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt,posits that Jesus has been euhemerised by the earliest believers: that is, like popular accounts of the origin of various religions Jesus began life as an imagined character, a mythical being who was later converted into a historical individual that lived in a particular place and time.
Furthermore, as an imagined celestial being Jesus was probably known originally only through private revelations and hidden messages in scriptures, which were then elaborated into an allegorical person communicating the claims of the gospels. Carrier maintains that the gospels are “wildly fictitious” and that post-biblical writings that mention Jesus should not be regarded as independent corroboration of his actual existence since they most probably relied on the gospels for their information. Using the Bayesian probability calculus as a foil, he claims that the probability of Jesus’existence lies somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2000, depending on the estimates used in the computation.
The method and conclusions of Richard Carrier have been subjected to critical fire by biblical scholars most of whom, to be sure, came from Christian backgrounds. For instance, Bart D. Ehrman criticises what he calls Carrier’s “idiosyncratic” interpretation of the Old Testament that ignores modern critical scholarship on the bible, whereas Daniel N. Gullotta claims that Carrier not only misinterprets and stretches his sources, he extensively uses fringe ideas to draw inappropriate parallels between Homeric epics and some of the gospels.
For my part, I believe that scepticism about Jesus’s actual existence, and particularly Carrier’s main conclusion regarding the euhemerisation of Jesus should not be dismissed cavalierly since there is no conclusive evidence that the character presented in the New Testament actually walked the earth, let alone point convincingly to his actual words.
There is a very important point dogmatic defenders of Christianity tend to forget or ignore, which is that the bible (or versions of it currently in use) is “a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies.” None of the so-called synoptic gospels was written earlier than four or five decades after the events they purport to describe actually happened.
Again, about four centuries went by before the first Christian manuscripts were compiled to form the New Testament. Given that it took several centuries before the bible first emerged and that the technology for preserving information did not exist at the time, it should not be surprising that theHoly Bible contains a lot of flaws and fabrications.
In addition, aside from the fact that the earliest scriptures were originally handed down orally from generation to generation, it is impossible to avoid gross distortions as they were translated from Hebrew language to koiné(or common Greek) and then to Latin and English. This problem is so serious that Bart Ehrman referred to earlier reportedly claims that “There are more variations in our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
It is extremely likely that several of the defining events recorded in the gospels never really happened; they were later interpolations by scribes and translators with a certain theological agenda. Consider the moving story that began in John 7: 35 of a group of Pharisees and others who brought to Jesus a woman caught committing adultery, with the mischievous intention of putting Jesus in a moral dilemma.
Jesus tactfully avoided the trap. After her accusers had gone he tells the woman to go home and sin no more. But John did not write the story ascribed to him. It was actually fabricated by scribes around the Middle Ages and it is absent both in the earlier Greek versions of John and in the other three gospels. Mark 16: 17-18 records that those who believe in Jesus would receive the gift of glossolalia and perform miracles.
Christians, especially of the Pentecostal denomination, gleefully cite this passage to justify their incomprehensible blabbing supposedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. New Testament scholars have determined that those verses were added by a scribe long after Mark’s gospel was written, the earliest versions of which ended in chapter 16:8.
The twelve verses added to modern bibles narrating how Jesus appeared before Mary Magdalene and the disciples and then ascended into heaven were not in those earlier versions. Christians should come to terms with the fact that New Testament narratives about Jesus contain a lot of fabrications and mistranslations, and adjust their exaggerated faith in him accordingly.