Posted by: CS | September 21, 2012

The life of Jesus: Does it matter?

…there is not a single fact about Jesus of which we can be certain, other than that, if he actually existed, his name would not have been Jesus…
 

C’mon guys, you try it. (Image source)

The four gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul, which are the core texts of the Christian faith, tell the story of Jesus’ life: his birth;  his intellectually precocious youth; his recognition by John the Baptist as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah; his 40-day fast during which he wrestled with the temptations of the Devil and determined the path he would follow; his recruitment of disciples; his journeys throughout Palestine; his teachings and miracles; his conflicts with the Jewish authorities; and finally, his arrest, conviction, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to Heaven.

Yet there is not a single fact about Jesus of which we can be certain, other than that, if he actually existed, his name would not have been Jesus, since no such name was known to the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine of that day.

There is not a single reference to Jesus in the historical record. The day and month of his birth are unknown. The year of his birth is uncertain, the place of his birth, Bethlehem or Nazareth, is a matter of debate. And the circumstances of his birth and life as recorded in the gospels so closely reflect those of the Persian god, Mithra, and the founders of  other religious cults that the literal veracity of the gospel story seems impossible to accept.

If, then, the story about Jesus is largely if not entirely myth, what possible interest can it have for people of the present day? To many, the answer is “none.” On that view, Jesus, if any real person existed who inspired the gospel stories, must have been a mere mortal, born not of a virgin, unable to raise the dead or turn water into wine, who died as any crucified man dies, and whose death was as final as will be yours or mine.

Lev Tolstoy by Ilya Repin (Image source)

That, precisely, was the view of Russia’s literary giant, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Yet Tolstoy made Jesus the focus of his religious life. 

Why? 

Because the teachings of Jesus remain a fact undeniable on the basis of any historical evidence. The teachings of Jesus have a validity and significance totally independent of their authorship, and even of how they may have been edited or re-written. One can accept or reject them, but one cannot deny their reality or their force in the world. 

For that reason Tolstoy made his own translation of the gospels from the Greek bible. In it he combined the teachings from the four gospels in a single narrative, which omits reference to the supposedly miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, the miracles Jesus is supposed to have performed and the miracle of his resurrection.This work is available in English translation as The Gospels in Brief.

Tolstoy’s rejection of the magic and mystery of Christianity naturally enough alienated him from the Orthodox Church, which excommunicated and anathematized him. His rejection of violence as a means to political ends alienated him also from the dictatorship of the Tsar, which though fearing to take action against Tolstoy himself, persecuted his followers. 

His ideas were equally repugnant to the Communists who claimed Tolstoy as a great patriotic artist while suppressing his religious and political beliefs and punishing those who attempted to put into practice his ethical principles. The Soviets shot more than 100 Tolstoyans, while consigning many more to slave labor camps and mental hospitals. 

An account of the evolution of Tolstoy’s religious beliefs is provided in Rosamund Bartlett’s fine biography: Tolstoy, a Russian Life.

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Responses

  1. Is Jesus Real? – Non-biblical Evidence of His Existence.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bLlpiWh9-k

  2. In the first 90 seconds this video states:"in actuality there is much more evidence of Jesus' existence than there is for almost any important or famous person of that time."More evidence for the existence of Jesus than of Julius Caesar, Cleopaptra, Anthony, Plato, Socrates. Yeah suuuure.And the statement "it is only possible to deny the existence of Jesus today because 1900 years have passed since his death" is equally daft. We don't doubt the existence of the Pharoah Khufu who built the Great Pyramid 2500 years before Jesus is supposed to have lived.So why should we listen to the remaining 30 odd minutes of this video? But in any case I didn't say that Jesus did not exist. His teachings undoubtedly exist and must have been formulated by someone, or some people. Assuming that the teachings are essentially or wholly the work of one person, we can call that person Jesus even though we know he would not have been known by that name by the Jews of Palestine 2000 years ago, because that name was unknown to those people at that time. But what we cannot say is that the author of the teachings of Jesus was born of a virgin in a stable attended by wise men or kings and that he walked on water, turned water into wine, and after death was resurrected and ascended unto heaven. The only evidence we have of those claims are the gospels, which were written long after Jesus' death by a person or by persons unknown.Hence the point of mys post, that the one thing we know about Jesus for sure is what he taught, which is what it may therefore be most profitable to pay attention to.

  3. The video provides fairly extensive evidence for the existence of Jesus. I posted it because you did appear to be doubting his existence."Yet there is not a single fact about Jesus of which we can be certain, other than that, if he actually existed, his name would not have been Jesus, since no such name was known to the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine of that day'.It seems that Jesus is the English translation of the Greek 'Iesous' which is the language the New Testament was written in. He's not identified by name in the Old Testament which was written in Hebrew.As for the claims of the extent of the evidence that is really no more than an unnecessary 'throw away' remark. It's actually a debating tactic that's long been used on the issue. The idea being that if the same standards used by those who dispute the historical evidence for Jesus were used for other historical characters then the existence of these too could be doubted. Just as an example.http://carm.org/jesus-exist

  4. "The video provides fairly extensive evidence for the existence of Jesus. I posted it because you did appear to be doubting his existence."The video makes two absurd claims in the first 90 seconds. Why should we watch 35 minutes of such stuff?That there may be a historical reference to a Jew whose Aramaic name may have been Yeshua, rendered in Greek as Lesous and in English as Jesus, being crucified by the Romans is not historical evidence for the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels, born of a virgin in a stable attended by wise men, growing up to walk on water, raise the dead, being himself resurrected after death, etc. What the crucified historical Yeshua, if that was his name, did or said before or after his crucifixion is unknown to history.

  5. Or let me put that another way. If I tell you a story about a wizard named Gandalf of Gothenberg who has extraordinary magical powers, and I then show you a listing for Gandalf in the Gothenberg telephone directory, that is not evidence, historical or otherwise, for the story I told you. It merely indicates the likely existence of a person named Gandalf in Gothenberg — in itself, a fact of no significance.

  6. The life of Jesus: Does it matter?It could matter. You may not like to treat the principles in Christianity as mere rules to be followed, and also not like to treat them as mere proposals to be considered in ethical theory. If you wish to both follow them, but also remain a free-thinking person, unburdened by dogma, it would be very fortunate if the messages as coming from a very friendly person or persons who have really lived. In that case, you can emulate them out of affection, like a friend copying the ways of his friend; the necessity for dogmatism or self-humiliation dissapears.

  7. That is a nice point, Levantine. But is it not the words of Jesus that express his character and create the awareness of a real person who uttered them?The virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles and resurrection, which mirror accounts of various ancient mythical characters, seem only to detract from Jesus' credibility as a real person.It is understandable that in ages past miracles were believed because there was no system of thought that strictly precluded them. But today, when rocket science and other forms of rational analysis prove to be more powerful than almost any supposed magic and far more reliable, who still believes in magic?It was, surely, to make the reality of Jesus more credible that Tolstoy made a miracle-free translation of the gospels. I acknowledge that for many raised in the traditional Christian faith, the original gospel stories have charm though they are not accepted as literal truth. But such stories apparently have no charm for most citizens of the Western nations, which suggests that Tolstoy's idea of creating a miracle-free gospel had merit.

  8. CS, I've already explained the relevance of the first comment. As for the second the author of the video is making a specific point. It is only relatively recently that Jesus' actual existence has begun to be denied. Up until then the debate centred on such things as his divinity. The video restricts itself to historic evidence for the existence of Jesus which it does pretty well. "The virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles and resurrection, which mirror accounts of various ancient mythical characters, seem only to detract from Jesus' credibility as a real person."This is the sort of thing that Zeitgeist and Icke have been saying and it's been thoroughly debunked.http://zeitgeistchallenge.com/The thing is, I was keen to know all I could so I did watch the rest of the video. That in turn inspired me to learn more. There were, of course, many unanswered questions and considerable doubts. This required even more research in an attempt for a deeper understanding. I couldn't possibly explain all this in a comment but it's been an incredible journey of discovery that has completely transformed my understanding of what Christianity is. Seek and ye shall find?

  9. "and it's been thoroughly debunked."Look, if you want to make some points, why not be explicit and spell them out. To say this or that has been thoroughly debunked is no argument.Equally, you cannot expect people to spend hours viewing videos which may or may not be relevant. What is clear, is your diligent avoidance of the point that the mere existence of someone whose Aramaic name is rendered in English as Jesus and who was crucified by the Romans does not constitute historical evidence of the biblical Jesus. You say you cannot possibly explain your position in a comment. But if there is not a single fact that you can point out that supports your position I am bound to be skeptical.

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  11. All I've done is respond to your 'arguments' that, 'there is not a single reference to Jesus in the historical record… and the circumstances of his birth and life as recorded in the gospels so closely reflect those of the Persian god, Mithra, and the founders of other religious cults that the literal veracity of the gospel story seems impossible to accept.'What's easier, me typing out reams of evidence or suggesting you a watch a short and concise video? Surely you're also guilty of making arguments without any evidence. I've reviewed the claims that, "the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles and resurrection… mirror accounts of various ancient mythical characters' and found them unproven. Ditto the claim that there is no historical evidence for Jesus. I merely invited you to review some of that evidence. It's entirely up to you if you don't wish to.

  12. "All I've done is respond to your 'arguments' that, 'there is not a single reference to Jesus in the historical record…"Ah, well that's where you went wrong because I didn't say "there is not a single reference to Jesus in the historical record…" What I said was that ".there is not a single fact about Jesus of which we can be certain…", which is true.you insist that we have historical evidence of his existence, but in fact all we have is historical evidence of someone whose Aramaic name is rendered in English as Jesus. But there is no way of connecting that person with the author of the Sermon on the Mount, the child of a virgin, whose birth was attended on by kings, who raised the dead and performed other miracles and who himself was revitalized after death.Anyway, who cares? The teachings of Jesus exist, whether they are the product of one mind or many. The question is whether they are to be believed as eternal spiritual truth, i.e., the word of God.And in fact, it seems to me that in the matter of faith, you have cause and effect the wrong way round. You seem to believe that because there is, so you claim, historical evidence for the biblical Jesus — a contention I reject — we should believe what he said. But Jesus said his teachings were for unbelievers. In other words, it is the teachings that matter. It is from them that belief is to arise, not a passing reference (made long after the event) by Josephus or Pliny to the execution of a Jewish troublemaker.

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  14. CS, the statement, 'there is not a single reference to Jesus in the historical record…' is a direct quote from your own article. That is all I was responding to. If you prefer another source then try this.http://thedevineevidence.com/jesus_history.htmlI'm certainly not saying that just because there is clear historical proof of Jesus that is the only reason we should believe what he said. What I said was that was my starting point for wanting to know more. A journey that has subsequently resulted in my faith and changed my understanding of what Christianity is all about. One more thing. Jesus wasn't 'Jewish'. He was from the tribe of Judah, a Judahite, just one of the twelve tribes of Israel. This isn't me being pedantic, there is a difference and therein lies a whole other story.

  15. Re: direct quoteyes you're right. I thought you were referring to my statement in bold at the head of the article. Sorry.What you say about Jesus not being Jewish is remarkable. How does that square with Luke III, 47-49?"Then, after three days, they [his parents] found Him in the temple … and His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You." 49. And He said to them, "Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?'"Why would a non-Jew describe the Temple as his Father's house?But I still don't see the relevance of some passing reference by Josephus or Pliny to someone who might have been the biblical Jesus. It doesn't prove that the biblical Jesus existed. And if it did, I don't see that it matters. As Jesus put it, according to Tolstoy's translation of the Gospel of John:"'Do not debate as to who I am, and whence I am come', said Jesus. 'My teaching is true, not because I declare, like Moses, that God spoke with me on Sinai, but it is true because it is in you also.'"If that is not true, I guess I have no grasp of Jesus' message.

  16. But as in the case of your claim that there is historical evidence for the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels, you offer no evidence for your claim that Jesus was not a Jew. (A URL provides is neither an argument nor a relevant fact.)In both cases, you appear to be playing semantic games. In the first case you equate a historical reference to the crucifixion of a Palestinian (Syrian to the Romans) named Yesua with the biblical Jesus about whom we know nothing except by hearsay (recorded long after Jesus' death by unidentified Gospel writers). But no such correspondence is justified.In the second case, you claim on the basis of the place of Jesus' birth, that he was not a Jew. But in the modern understanding of the term, Jesus clearly was a Jew. He was, according to the gospels, descended from King David and from Abraham. Moreover, he was schooled in the Mosaic law and he studied in the temple.There were factions among the People of the Book at the time of Jesus. And Jesus was not of the faction of the Pharisees who were dominant in Jerusalem. But the Pharisees must have seen Jesus as one of their own, even if a heretical one, since they upbraided him for not adhering to the laws of cleanliness, etc.If Jesus had been a Roman or a Greek, the Pharisees would not have expected him to conform to their ways. He provoked them because he was of their faith, but a heretical one.As for Jesus' origin, that is an open to question. The gospels are unclear. Was he born in Bethlehem in Judah or was he a Nazarene as two of the gospels suggest?

  17. I'll try and explain the issue of the 'Jewishness' of Jesus as succinctly as possible. Careful reading of the Bible reveals that it is largely concerned with the descendants of Abram, later to be called by God Abraham. Without going into all of the details Abraham had a son called Issac who in turn had a son called Jacob. All three were Hebrews. They were not 'Jews'. Jacob had 12 sons, one of which was called Judah. The descendants of these 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel. At a point in the history of the 12 tribes the kingdom became split into two. In the southern kingdom were the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and in the northern kingdom were the remaining 10 tribes. These two kingdoms were collectively referred to as the House of Judah in the south, Judea and the House of Israel in the north, Israel. Both were eventually taken into captivity but at different times and to different places. Both also have very different prophetic destinies yet to be fulfilled. Eventually a small portion of Judah returned to Judea that even then contained many different non-Israelite peoples such as Canaanites and Edomites. Herod, for example, was an Edomite. These are who Jesus was referring to when he said 'those who say they are 'Jews' (Judahites) but are not'. They were the assorted Pharisees, Sadducees and Sanhedrin who formed the basis of who have later become known as the 'Jews'.The fact is there were no 'Jews' in Jesus' time. There were Judahites (of the tribe of Judah) or Judeans (assorted peoples living in that country) but no 'Jews' as we know them today. The word Idumean was translated into Iewes in the King James Bible. This later became Jews, which in turn became synonymous with the people calling themselves Jews today. The 'Jews' have also become synonymous with Israel which couldn't be further than the truth. To add to the deception at least some of those calling themselves 'Jews' today are descendants of the Khazars. The religious views of the 'Jews' of today are very different from that of the Israelites at the time of Moses. The most important addition to their belief system is the Talmud. There are two Talmud's, one of which is called the Babylonian Talmud. Add Kabbalism to the mix and we are a long way from the Judahites from which Jesus came. The Bible describes the end times control system that enslaves the world as 'Mystery Babylon'. It's without doubt that at least the ruling elite of the Jews form a significant element of that system.There's much, much more to this story to discover if you desire to do so. The return of the 'Jews' to 'Israel' has absolutely nothing to do with Bible prophecy. It is in fact part of a grand deception that has deceived many, including many Christians.

  18. My arguments regarding the historical evidence for Jesus are completely separate to the case for his divinity etc. They do prove he was the founder of a religion called Christianity, was crucified by Pilate and had many followers. The source of his miracles, though dismissed as 'magic tricks', was also discussed. Getting into a debate on the age of the Gospels seems pointless but they are not as old as you think they are.The historical evidence alone is no cause for faith. I'll be honest, mine grew reluctantly. I was very resistant to the idea. The first step was to read the Gospels, then read them again, slowly. Then ask the questions that inevitably arose and seek the answers. Then I investigated the subject of prophecy. A substantial portion of the Bible is prophetic. Then other questions came up which again I had to seek the answers to. As I said, it's impossible to explain all this in a comment.Your quote from Tolstoy goes on to say, 'everyone who believes my commandments does so not because it is I who speak, but because our common Father draws him to Himself; and my teaching will give him life at the last day. It is written in the prophets that all men shall be taught of God. Everyone who understands the Father, and learns to know His will, yields himself to my teaching."All I can say is I was drawn, began to understand His will and yielded myself to His teaching".

  19. I think you notion of the non-Jewishness of Jesus is somewhat eccentric. The term Jew is applicable to the biblical Jesus because that is the term by which he is described in the Gospels. But as I have already acknowledged, there may be little relationship between the biblical Jesus and any possible or actual historical Jesus.

  20. I'm glad you like my quote from Tolstoy's gospel translation. It seems to say what I set out to say in my post; namely, that it is not the facts about Jesus' life and works that matter so much as his teachings, which if true, must be true independently of the details of Jesus life, if that is, Jesus described in the gospels, actually existed.

  21. I did, I hadn't come across it before. Whilst Christ's teachings are undoubtedly important there is much more to learn and understand, if you're drawn to do so. Part of that is why Jesus had to come and why he had to die on the cross.

  22. "The term Jew is applicable to the biblical Jesus because that is the term by which he is described in the Gospels"That's the whole point. He isn't. What you are inadvertently doing is associating Jesus with those referred to as 'Jews' today.


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