What if there was no historical figure named Jesus? Set aside the question of the resurrection and just look at the rest of what we christians assume to be true. For example, I’ve always thought there was a firm consensus among scholars that there was a man name Jesus, from Nazareth, who was a great teacher and healer. While in a discussion with some hard core atheists, there was an insistence that there was no credible first-hand accounts of this man called Jesus.
My own christianity doesn’t center around the idea of Jesus as God. I’m perfectly content with the idea, even, that the resurrection may be just another metaphor for everlasting life through self-sacrifice and faith in god. Growing up I learned Jesus’ message was to love our neighbors, care for the poor, and center our lives around god. This message speaks to the core of my being and it’s why I consider myself christian rather than, say, Buddhist or Unitarian. My religion also centers entirely around the notion that the stories the Bible tells (which are metaphors as far as I’m concerned, not literal history) can help us be kind to each other and make the world a more peaceful place.
What then if there really was no Jesus as I’ve always assumed there was? Can I have faith in a myth? Can the idea of the story sustain me even if there was no human being who was so spiritually connected with God that he believed love and peace were the purpose of life? I’m not sure.
I set out to see if these arrogant know-it-all atheists from the newsgroup discussions were right. And it turns out they were. Even among the most Christian of historians, there are no solid claims of first-hand accounts of this man Jesus of Nazareth. Even the Romans who were serious record keepers probably only listed Jesus’ crucifixion as just another executed poor carpenter. A handy resource for my few weeks of research was the Frontline series, “From Jesus to Christ.” On this site there’s a good article from TIKKUN Magazine by Claudia Setzer that summarizes the closest any historian I’ve found will come to claiming there was, without a doubt, this man name Jesus. In this article, Setzer writes:
“His followers, and even a non-believer like the Jewish historian Josephus, recall Jesus as a healer, exorcist, and miracle worker.”
But going a bit deeper into the Josephus records I learned that even these are a bit sketchy. I wasn’t able to find any historian (besides a few Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians) who would claim there was first-hand evidence that Jesus existed.
Personally, I don’t find this troubling. I also don’t find it anything close to proof that the man didn’t exist. However, it does cause me to question what matters to me in my faith.
When I consider if Jesus was a real man who taught such important lessons, who washed the feet of the prostitutes and dined with lepers and tax collectors, I realize it really is that message that drives me. In fact, the earliest Christians seem most in tune with how I view christianity. While they did celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus (Christ) as their reason for being, their communities also centered around equality in societies where hierarchical social structures were the norm.
In my Dad’s most recent book, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis, he writes about the earliest Christians bringing together the bread and the wine. He writes:
“This was part of ‘the work of the people.’ But the very poor among those members typically could not afford to bring wine. So they brought water (which, according to cultural mores, was perfectly appropriate). That water they poured into the large, common chalice, mingling it with the wine from the others, so that, in the end, there was then only one offering. All social, political, and cultural distinctions were thereby countermanded and transfigured…Thus, for what Christians today is often merely a routine act of traditional symbolism–biblically rooted, to be sure, but not of major ritual importance–was for those early Christians a profound and revolutionary public acknowledgment of a new kind of egalitarian society and a new kind of hope for the whole world.”
There are countless examples like this of the earliest Christians authentically living by Christ’s example. Christianity got off track, in my relatively uninformed and humble opinion, when it moved beyond the countercultural activism through spiritual connection and adopted hierarchical power structures.
I’ll admit my world was a bit rattled when I confirmed the argumentative atheists were right about the absence of first-hand historical proof of Jesus’ existence. I’ve questioned all sorts of aspects of Christianity, but always assumed there was no doubt that the man lived, taught, and healed. I don’t feel any closer to knowing if he was an amalgamation of lots of good ideas or if he was truly a living human being. After these searches, however, I do feel closer to my commitment to the message. Love your neighbor. Help the needy. Care for the Earth. Commune with god. Strive for peace. These messages are why I still consider myself a christian person.