Did Jesus exist? A rethink.

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Who determined the rules for the early Jesus cult? Jesus himself or the members of the cult? What does the evidence suggest? They all appear in documents written between 40 and 90 years after Jesus died. Either they survived from the moment the words left his lips, remembered accurately by generations of believers or they were included in the gospels by the cult communities that created them.

I’ve written before about how much of the Bible was written backwards (so to speak) and the gospel’s cult rules look likely to have been developed in just this way. The cult members had, by the time the gospels came to written, established these rules for their communities. They had shaped a Jesus that suited their purposes; it has long been recognised that the creators of Matthew’s, Luke’s and even John’s gospel took Mark’s account and amended it significantly. Their depiction of Jesus, his teaching and the resurrection are amended to reflect their particular beliefs and community rules. How do we know this?

Richard Carrier, the so-called mythicist (he actually says there’s a 1 in 3 possibility of the historicity of Jesus; figures as mythologised as Jesus rarely existed in fact) demonstrates how Mark’s gospel is an allegorical story based on Paul’s teaching. Mark created a well constructed narrative designed, literally, to flesh out the spiritual being that Paul imagined he’d seen in his visions. Using Jewish and pagan myths to structure it, he incorporates Paul’s visions and ‘revelations’ to create his Jesus story. To take one example, Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 how his celestial Christ told him in person (i.e. in his head) how his sacrifice of himself should be celebrated: with bread and wine. Mark turns this into an actual meal supposedly shared between Jesus and his early followers: the Last Supper.

Subsequent gospel writers took Mark’s allegory and amended it both to suit their needs and to correct what they perceived as Mark’s shortcomings. In the process they ‘fleshed out’ still further the figure at the centre of Paul’s (and others’) visions and Mark’s story based on them. Most significantly, they added increasingly elaborate resurrection appearances; it is significant Mark’s gospel has none, as if he knew Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a physical event but a visionary one exactly as Paul describes.

It seems indisputable that the gospels were written this way (though there are, naturally, those who do dispute it.) None of the gospels rely on a hypothetical oral tradition, which, if it existed, would be extremely unreliable over 50 or so years (the time between Jesus’ supposed ministry and the writing of Matthew’s gospel), nor do they depend on the equally hypothetical Q. In any case, Q, if it existed, was a book of sayings, not a narrative account. Significantly, no copies of what must surely would have been a precious document have survived.

No, Mark made up the story of Jesus based on Paul’s visions (we know others had similar visions before Paul; he tells us so in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8). We know too that subsequent gospel writers built on Mark, adding what suited them, including their particular sect’s rules. What better endorsement of these rules than to have the object of their worship seeming to issue them himself? It’s highly unlikely he did anything of the sort. In 1991 the Jesus Seminar determined, controversially, that only about 20% of the words in the gospels could be attributed to an historical Jesus. All of the rest is made up and put retrospectively into his mouth. (The Seminar nevertheless concluded that Jesus existed.)

From the small amount of Jesus’ teaching that might be attributed to an historical Jesus, to the way the gospels were created, what can be known about a ‘real’ Jesus – what he said and did – grows increasingly small. All we are left with is a ghost of a figure. And isn’t this precisely what Paul claimed he and others had seen?

I’m rethinking my position and I’m coming to the conclusion, based on how the gospels were written, especially the way Mark allegorised Paul’s visions and teachings, that the likelihood of an historical Jesus is slim. Carrier has an abundance of evidence to support his proposal of a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. Certainly the Jesus(es) of the gospels did not exist; they’re all made up. It now seems to me there’s no real, historical Jesus behind any of them. 
 

Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.