A Tale of Murder and Deception
Originally printed in HUMSIG
Lecture delivered at Humanist Society of
Larry A. Taylor
Copyright HUMSIG, 1987.
Jerusalem; it's a tough town, but it's my beat.
I knew it was going to be a tough case when the dame walked into my office. She tough and she was cool. I could tell from her looks that she wasn't going to take "no" for an answer. She said she wanted me to do an historical investigation, but I knew that her type would be satisfied with nothing less than my soul. She was a missionary. Her boss had been murdered. She wanted the impossible "proved" from history: that this Jewish carpenter's son - Jesus, she called him - had risen from the dead. If I didn't take the case, then I could go to hell for all she was concerned.
The Historian as Detective
I've made up the above little mystery novel scenario to emphasize the similarity between a shamus and a historical investigator. A historian is like a detective - both of us have to be tough about the facts, and not take the first story offered to us. Who said so? Why? What's the angle? What's in it for them?
Historian R.G. Collingwood argues that the fundamental attribute of the critical historian is skepticism regarding testimony about the past.1 All we have are documents and artifacts. Documents can be propaganda, or real evidence but biased, or completely forged in a later century. Examples of famous forgeries include the "Donation of Constantine," supposedly a deed of gift of Vatican lands to the Pope by the Roman Emperor, but actually fabricated in the eighth century; the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion;" and Minnesota's famous Kensington Rune Stone.(2)
The treatment of Tiberius, emperor from 14 to 37 CE, is an example of the bias of writers. Nearly all ancient writers whose works have survived agree that Tiberius was a monster in human form. They depict him at an age of eighty indulging in a variety of vices that seem even physically impossible, much less likely. What would be our knowledge of Tiberius if other ancient sources had survived?(3)
How does this apply to the story of Jesus? Simply that all of the early critics are dead. Skeptical opinions were banned. Christian opinions, other than those of the establishment, were banned. Books were destroyed, and later, heretics were burned.
The following is a composite of a typical, traditional argument for believing that the resurrection of Jesus was a fact provable from history:
Let's investigate the above claims. Just the facts, mam.
The story is a good story, too. Like all good detective stories, there is a love interest. Did you know about Jesus' girlfriend? Imagine Mary Magdalene suddenly showing up at a trial to deliver surprise testimony. This account has been suppressed by centuries of orthodox Christianity:
The easy way
In a strict sense, no "miracle" can ever be proved by a historian. Antony Flew summarizes the arguments as put forth by David Hume:
Notice that Hume/Flew is not saying that "miracles are impossible." What could that possibly mean, anyway? But a historian, dealing with accounts of events, and explanations of those events, has to rank these events as "probable" and "improbable." Because a "miracle" by definition is contrary to the ordinary experience, it always has to be classified as "improbable." A report of a resurrection is so improbable, that the historian must rank a literal interpretation as less probable than that the reports are the results of illusion, deception, garbled transmission, and so forth.
Even Christian apologists admit that certainties cannot be established by historical arguments. Origen, one of the earliest educated Christians, wrote: "An attempt to substantiate the truth of almost any story as historical fact, even if the story is true, and to produce complete certainty about it, is one of the most difficult tasks, and in some cases impossible."(6)
In fact, it is doubtful that any amount of testimony could way so heavily as to overcome the strength of our present experience. I regard Hume's argument as correct and sufficient.
No! Christians which to use history say that I would have a anti-supernatural bias to begin with. Who do I think I am to dismiss all reports of miracles? But such critical thinking is common to modes of thinking other than scholarship.
What if ones pregnant daughter said she was still a virgin and the father was Jehovah? I think that most fundamentalist fathers would exhibit an "anti-supernatural bias." I did not say that no "miracle" was "possible". I merely say that no "miracle" can be "proved." because alternative explanations, likely and unlikely, are still more probable than that observed relations so regularly established be violated. But to satisfy everyone, the case must go on.
Historians must judge the past by the present. What could be more natural? No other method seems logical. We judge the unfamiliar by the familiar, the far by the near.
Some people claimed some things. It is valid to investigate "miracle-claims." Let us find out who said what to whom and when.
Let me put on my tough detective hat again. "I've seen a lot of things in my time, lady," I would say. "But I never saw a dead person get up. No detective (or historian) has got any business claiming that he or she can 'prove' a miracle. I think that the evidence will show that someone has been telling you stories. I tell you what I am going to do. I'll investigate all the facts and lay them out. After I give you all the facts and you still think you can find a miracle in all of this, then that's your business.
"I get one hundred dollars a day plus expenses."
Who is Jesus?
Let's go back to the method of the historian, who necessarily criticizes his or her own sources. What do we know about the historical Jesus? Let's lay out the facts that are available.
Writings of Jesus: none. Contemporaneous records, such as tax receipts, or Roman administrative documents: none. Books or other accounts written by eyewitnesses (more on the gospels further on): none. Physical descriptions, such as height, weight, eye and hair color: none.
What do we have? Dozens of "gospels" composed by later followers, four of which were canonized into the New Testament. These were written between thirty and two hundred years after the claimed date of Jesus. But we also have references in the letters of Paul. Paul was a second generation Christian who probably never met Jesus. Most of the letters which bear his name are approved by scholars as really having been written by him.
Incidental references to Christians and Jesus can be found in Tacitus and Suetonius.(7) Suetonius spells the name, "Chrestus"; either this is a confusion on his part, or it refers to someone else.
Suppose we use the canonical gospels for evidence of biographical detail about Jesus. Where was Jesus born? The writers of the gospels disagree among themselves. Matthew and Luke support the usual notion that the event took place in Bethlehem; while John and Mark give the impression that they had never heard of such a thing.(8) Jesus was commonly known as a Nazarene, an inhabitant of Nazareth, a hundred miles away.
When was Jesus born? According to Luke, it was during the reign of the Roman governor Quirinius,during a census ordered by Augustus throughout the whole world.(9) According to both Luke and Matthew it was also during the reign of king Herod "the Great."(10) The problem is that Herod died in 4 B.C.E., and this was fully ten years before Quirinius' census. Furthermore, during Herod's reign, no Roman census could have been held in his territory, which included both Judaea and Galilee, the locations of both Bethlehem and Nazareth.(11) Herod would have collected his own taxes, and given tribute to the Romans. Lastly, the existence of a census throughout the whole empire is contrary to the practice of the Romans, who collected taxes province by province, often subcontracting the process to "publicans."
It would seem that a genealogy would a simple and straightforward thing. Both Matthew and Luke both give accounts.(12) Unfortunately, they contradict each other, and the Old Testament, too; disagreeing even over the name of the father of Joseph. As good detectives, we are driven to the conclusion: almost no authentic biographical information is known about Jesus. That which is not included in the Christian Bible is extremely sketchy, while that which is regarded as "inspired" is contradictory to itself and to historical facts.
The Disciples: Missing Persons
Did not the disciples provide testimony of Jesus, and prove their sincerity by martyrdom? If Jesus is doubtful, the disciples are positively obscure. Other than James the brother of John,(13) no claim is made for the fate of any of the disciples in the Bible. No clues are provided by any contemporary author, either.
When Prophecy Fails
Sometime in the 1950's ( the researchers have obscured the exact year, as well as the identity of the subjects), sociologists at the University of Minnesota read in a major city's newspaper that messages from the planet Clarion received by a suburban housewife prophesied that the city would swamped by a flood from the great lake on a specific date only two months away. Similar cataclysms at the same time would amount to the end of the world. Faithful believers would be saved by boarding flying saucers.
The researchers decided to join the group, taking notes of behavior before and after the date of the proclaimed disaster. The record of the group's torment has enormous implications for the so-called "Easter event."
The authors of When Prophecy Fails observed a cultic group that had made predictions about the end of the world. They looked for the following conditions in that group:
The expectations of the theory were dramatically confirmed. The prophetic lady continued prophesying, the believers believed, and the researchers took notes, right through the date of the expected disaster. The gathered believers were not taken on their flying saucers. Suddenly, proselyting increased. Normally shy members of the group took to phoning newspapers with new rationalizations.
Committed to secrecy previously, members now sought publicity of all kinds. In the words of the researchers, proselytizing increased "meteorically."(15)
If anything is known about Jesus, it would be the following. He was a wandering rabbi and perhaps also a magician in first century Palestine. He gathered a movement of thousands of Jews who had Messianic expectations. A small group of followers had forsaken family and fortune.(16) After a dramatic march on the capital, Jesus was suddenly arrested and executed.
Christian apologists assert that the subsequent force of the movement could only be supplied by the dramatic force of miraculous resurrection and appearance to the disciples. But the sociological experiment thirty years ago show that the opposite is true. The researchers considered that their theory applied very well to early Christianity, only that the historical record was too obscure to determine whether all the conditions applied.(17)
Early Christians differed in their views of the resurrection. As evidenced by the original, short, version of Mark, the idea of a "spiritual resurrection" as opposed to a bodily one goes back to the very beginning. This is supported by the stories from Emmaus that disciples had seen him "in another form"(18) --not his former earthly form; and the gardener in whom Mary Magdalene senses the presence of Jesus.(19)
Why not see simply, that these emotionally wrought disciples recently deprived of their leader, saw Jesus everywhere, even in an ordinary stranger and a gardener?
This same Mary Magdalene is said to have been possessed of "seven devils," and later exorcised; in modern terms, she would considered to be either schizophrenic or psychic. In some of the versions, she is said to be the first to see Jesus. According to Elaine Pagels, So if some of the New Testament stories insist on a literal view of resurrection, others lend themselves to different interpretations. One could suggest that certain people, in moments of great emotional stress, suddenly felt that they experienced Jesus' presence. Paul's experience can be read this way.(20)
Paul, of course, never saw Jesus alive so far as we know. But the account of his vision of Jesus makes clear that it was a spiritual presence, not physical. One account of his experience contradicts the other on a crucial point: did bystanders hear the voice?(21)
But what of the Christian claim that a risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once?(22) First of all, where or when did this take place? Although Paul intimates that some of the persons involved were still alive, he does not name them. Also, what is the likelihood that Greek converts would travel to Palestine to check up on his story, in an age when such travel was expensive and dangerous? If such a Greek had actually done such a thing, would his individual word be worth much to the Christians if he had caught out Paul in a fib? Our experience with modern groups based on charismatic leaders shows us the incredible flexibility of credulity.
Was it a bodily appearance? Paul did not distinguish his own hallucinogenic vision from those of the twelve or the other claimants.
But instead, suppose the following happened. Five hundred Christians are gathered somewhere near a cliff or bluff in Palestine. Suddenly, a figure comes around the edge in white robes, leading most of the crowd to believe that he had appeared from nowhere. Just as mysteriously, he disappears. Voil`! Instant miracle. Farfetched? Perhaps, but given the state of mind of the early believers, it would account completely for this story.
Bodily Resurrection - Not the Earliest Story
The claims of various apostles, singly and in groups, that they had seen Jesus in the flesh, were added later. If there were multiple eye witness accounts of these events available to "Mark", why did he stop at 16:8 and not include them? It is harder for me to believe that they did occur and were left out by "Mark", than that did not occur but were included by the other writers. In such books as the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Thomas and other Christian books as ancient as any in the canon, a literal belief in the bodily resurrection is ridiculed as a "faith of fools." "Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error." Instead they must "receive the resurrection while they live."23
The Ebionites - the Forgotten Jewish Christians
Early Jewish Christians in Palestine did not believe that Jesus is God?
Stranger and stranger! After all, Jesus never claimed to be God. This claim was not taken seriously by his friends, but promoted by others who did not know him, to the ends of the Roman Empire.
Who represents the original tradition of Christianity? Surely the Jewish Christians, not those of foreign lands who heard stories second and third hand. In my opinion, this group, branded as heretical by the later gentile followers of Paul, represents the original belief of the small band of Jesus' followers. There is every reason to believe that the Ebionites, whose name means "poor people", were the continuous local Christian group in Judaea, including those who knew Jesus. According to history,the Ebionites did not believe that Jesus was God, did not believe in the virgin birth, and rejected the writings of Paul.(24) It seems that they also rejected all of the gospel writers, using only a stripped down version of Matthew.
Furthermore, Irenaeus includes the Ebionites in a list of heretics he claims were associated with the Gnostics. According to Elaine Pagels, the chief doctrinal difference the Gnostics had with "orthodoxy" was that they did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but a spiritual one, like a vision.(25)
It is my conclusion that this represents the earliest story.
The early Jewish Christians did not believe Jesus was God?
It's a Revelation!
The Story Was Changed
Elaine Pagels poses and answers a crucial question:
If the New Testament accounts could support a range of interpretations, why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms its religious content. But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter.(26)
Revisions of the stories even deprived Mary Magdalene of the primacy she receives in other versions, the first to see a resurrected Jesus. In the revision, Jesus is said to have appeared to Cephas (Peter) first.(27)
You've never heard an old fisherman exaggerate a story a little, have you?
Gospels Not Accounts of Eyewitnesses
An astonishing passage in Matthew's account shows how completely new events can be manufactured to fit "prophecies" from the Old Testament. Jesus instructs the disciples in preparation for the "triumphal entry" of Jerusalem, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt tied with her. [T]hey brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon." (Mat. 21:2-5)
Did you catch that? Jesus is supposed to have sat on two animals at once! Hosanna, that must have been hard to do. If not impossible to accomplish, or at least ackward, this feat would also be a contradiction of John 12:14-15, which states that Jesus was riding only one animal, a "young ass."
I think the obvious conclusion is that "Matthew" was not an eyewitness to such a strange procession, nor could he have gotten this detail from any reliable source.
Where, then did it come from?
He got it from having a copy of Zechariah 9:9 and using it to alter his own account in order to make a "fulfilled prophecy." The passage reads, "Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass." This sort of repetition is natural to Hebrew poetry. Matthew misunderstood this, and wrote that Jesus rode on two different animals.
"Some things that can not take place"
Origen, an early church father who was one of the first to obtain to some education, wrote a defense of Christian claims. In Origen's systematic treatment of inspiration and exegesis, he tells us that where spiritual truths did not correspond to historical events, " the scripture wove into the historical narrative what did not take place at some points what cannot take place and at others what can take place but did not."(28)
The distortions of the New Testament writers were detected as soon as Christians came to public prominence. Porphyry [c. 200 CE] convicted the evangelists of false references to the Hebrew prophets, pointed out contradictions between the different Gospel narratives, and the inconsistencies of St. Paul.(29)
Why can't you read Porphyry or the other critics today? Why, indeed, can you not read the works of the Gnostics or other alternatives? Their works were all ordered to be destroyed after "faithful" Christians took over political power.
Neither the claim to Messiahship, nor the resurrection is unique in history. The great early critic of Christianity mentioned above, Porphyry, admits that the Christians "have performed some wonders by their magic arts," but adds that 'to perform wonders is no great thing.' Apollonius and Apuleius and countless other have done as much. In a world where every one believed in magic, miracles were both commonplace and morally suspect. (30)
The accounts we have of Apollonius of Tyana resemble those of Jesus. It shows that the gospels were following a standard formula of hero worship writing.
It is not yourself that perpetrates this insult, but the demon who drives you on without your knowing it.
[T]he ghost swore that he would leave the young man alone and never take possession of any man again 'I will throw down yonder statue!'(31)
Compare the same literary elements present in the story of the Gadarene swine ( Matt. 8:31).
In our day, the Self-Realization Fellowship believes that its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, has appeared to scores of followers both in bodily form and in visions.
In addition, the book, Autobiography of a Yogi, presents the appearances of several other dead masters of their faith.(32)
The Romans: The Dog that Did Not Bark
A favorite argument of Christian apologists is this: Why didn't the Romans prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead? Couldn't they have exhibited the body? Solve the problem of the empty tomb, and rid themselves of this pesky sect. This becomes like the detective story, "The Dog that Did Not Bark," with the Romans in the role of slothful canines.
The fact is, the Romans were known for their tolerance of religions. According to Gibbon, "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."(33) It was the Christians who introduced intolerance.
Every religion was the object of benign neglect. In a few cases, cults such as that of the Great Mother, or of Isis, or others, were temporarily banned from the city of Rome. These were perceived as local political threats.
Instead of being a great threat to the Roman Empire, Christians were not numerous in the first century. It was not necessarily dangerous if one kept a low profile. Instead, it was much more dangerous to be a Jew in Palestine about 70 C.E., when hundreds of thousands of them were killed in the rebellion.
So far as is known, the only Christians punished for their faith in the first century were those who refused to sacrifice to the emperor, which, tragically was perceived as a political threat. Christians, for those who were Jews as well, received a blanket exemption accorded to that community.
Problems only developed later, as Gentile converts grew. The earliest administrative notice of Christians took place circa 112 C.E. The Roman provincial administrator Pliny ("the Younger") wrote to Trajan about how to handle them. The general tenor is, "Who are these guys?"(34) At the end of the first century, Christians were being persecuted - but only on a provincial basis, not empire wide.
The Decian persecution of 249 C.E. was the first systematic attempt to exterminate Christianity. The great persecution was under Diocletian between 303 and 305.(35) By the time the Romans took notice, it was at least a hundred years past the time the "empty tomb" claim could be dealt with in terms of artifacts and contemporary documents. The dog who did not bark did not do so because all it saw was a mouse.
Gathering All the Suspects
Like any good (or bad) detective novel, we should have a final scene in which the detective confronts the suspects and makes his accusation.
Is there anything here we could prove to the satisfaction of a criminal court - "beyond a reasonable doubt?" - even the existence of the chief character, Jesus?
"Insufficient evidence!" would have to be the verdict. As many eminent historians have concluded, Jesus probably lived in Palestine in the first century, and was executed, as Tacitus records. But how did the followers of Jesus begin to announce that their leader had been raised from the dead must remain under a shroud of obscurity because of the lack of contemporary, objective testimony. A charismatic rabbi with messianic pretentions and a following of thousands was suddenly executed. Under these conditions, it is natural to conclude that loyal band of insiders may continue to feel the presence of their leader. That they continued to see Jesus in visions wouldn't suprise anyone this is exactly what happened to the followers of Paramahansa Yogananda and many others. in When Prophecy Fails, we have sociological evidence for continued and increased prosyletizing in such conditions.
Further, from the evidence in the Gnostic Gospels, we can see how the story might have changed from a spiritual interpretation of visions, to a story of bodily resurrection under the steady pressure of political interests.
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