Fictional Jesus

I've seen quite a number of people who insist that Jesus (you know who I'm talking about) is a pure fiction. At the mere mention of historical evidence they explode: "What, pray tell, is that HISTORICAL evidence? There is no evidence, period. However, the lack of evidence speaks loudly." People who say so fail to realize that lack of evidence doesn't speak. Texts, on the other hand, do.

The evidence consists of the books found in the New Testament, other early Christian documents, and documents that tell us about the spread of the Christianity. Gospels' mythological character does not make them a poor historical source, only a fancy one, requiring a careful examination. Most sources we have suggest that there was a man named Jesus, and he was crucified by Romans in the 30-ies. There's no evidence to the contrary.

As an example, consider the letter of Paul to Galatians:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. [RSV Gal 1:18-20]

Regardless to who Peter is (chances are, it's not the Gospel Peter), I want to ask these people who this James could possibly be. If Jesus is a phantom, how come his brother is living in Jerusalem? How come there are any Christians in Jerusalem as early as in 50-ies, 20 years after Jesus' death? Can't they walk over to the praetorium and make sure that Jesus never existed? In fact, if they are Jerusalem residents, they don't even need to go anywhere, because they are the eyewitnesses of anything that took place.

The question above is only the beginning. Whom is Paul persecuting all over the world? After he converts, who is sending Judaisers to thwart his efforts? What sane person in Jerusalem would believe in the straight up lie, while the eye witnesses are still alive?

In my opinion, it is just not possible to spread a message about a guy crucified by Romans less than 20 years ago, when everyone knows it's not the case. You could tell anything you wanted about wonders he worked in Galilee, because no one saw them; but the trial and execution narratives had to be based on actual historical events (I'm not saying they are objectively presented; indeed, they are mythologised).

Forced to answer these questions, the proponents of the "fictional Jesus" deploy their main caliber: "The Jesus Puzzle", an article written by Earl Doherty. This being just a rant, I will not go as far as to comment on the entire thing (which is hardly anything more than propaganda fueled by an anti-religious sentiment) but I will say something.

I will consider this one case: James, whom Paul called the brother of the Lord. My explanation to what we read is that there was a man named James, and he had a brother named Jesus. My explanation is simple, straightforward, and agrees with other sources. Let's see what Earl has to say:

... from Galatians 1:19 comes the tradition that James was the sibling of Jesus, whereas the phrase "brother of the Lord" could instead refer to James' pre-eminent position as head of the Jerusalem brotherhood. Apostles everywhere (e.g., Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 1:1) were called "brother," and the 500 who received a vision of the spiritual Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:6 were hardly all related to Jesus. The phrase in Philippians 1:14, "brothers in the Lord," is a strong indication of what sort of meaning the Galatians phrase entails. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the phrase began as a marginal gloss, subsequently inserted into the text. Some later copyist, perhaps when a second century Pauline corpus was being formed and after James' sibling relationship to the new historical Jesus had been established, may have wished to ensure that the reader would realize that Paul was referring to James the Just and not James the Gospel apostle.

If he was striking for a strong criticism of the accepted historical views, he sure didn't try very hard, making claims like "not impossible" and "may have". As we go into detail, we see that he smudges the difference between the genitive case in Galatians and the dative in Philippians, and then uses an unrelated passage to support his spurious translation. To make matters worse, he requires us to believe that the passage suffered a redaction by the hand of a mysterious copyist. What happened to the razor, Earl?

The result of his meditations is the notion of the 1st century conspiracy; and he deduces the existence of the conspiracy from the fact that Paul doesn't write some things which Earl really wants to see. Tough luck, Earl, because Paul was not writing for you. The reason why Paul is "silent" on some key issues (pertaining to the historical account of Jesus' life) is very simple: his epistles are not meant to be the foundational documents, like Gospels are, but rather guidelines for resolving particular issues in his churches. His theology needs to be restated again and again, because it's so different from the conservative Judaism. In contrast, the historical details about Jesus need not to be given, because during this early period they were being told and retold by the actual eyewitnesses.

Twenty, thirty years pass, Jesus doesn't come back. Eyewitnesses are dying out, Christians are being persecuted wholesale. Apostles are scratching their heads and finally resolve to put the tradition in writing. A bold move, considering that the oral tradition was necessarily somewhat esoteric, and hence made the role of apostles in the early church so much greater. That's how we got Mark, and I think we are very lucky to get it so early. Compare it to the work of Juda ha-Nasi, who committed Mishna to the paper after centuries of unbroken oral tradition, at the moment in history when it became apparent that Judaism is about to go underground. I would even go as far as to identify the main reason why the Gospel of Mark is so poorly written (in Greek): Mark did not have an ability to write it, and was never commissioned to, but did it out of spite, because he foresaw the stagnation of the new religion. To his eyes, the Christianity was starting to turn into a spin-off of the Pharisaic sect, with "guardians of the word" having an exclusive access to what Mark thought to be the life-saving news, and so he decided to shake the establishment by writing it all down, in vernacular.