So it’s the time of year when people crowd into malls in a feeding frenzy of last-minute shopping. When colleagues who never see one another outside of work now pretend to like one another for the duration of the office party. When the annual family psychodrama is played out in millions of living rooms. God rest ye merry, gentlemen …
Before it was renamed Christmas, December 25 was a pagan drinking festival. Now it’s known as the birthday of the man who may have had more impact on the world than anyone else in history. Century after century, genocide has been committed in his name, and so have acts of mercy. People have been fed and clothed, and people have been tortured and murdered, all by people who invoke his name. Worldwide, Christian churches are big business.
What many people don’t know is that there is almost no historical evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ ever actually existed.
The Bible says Jesus was becoming a powerful figure during his lifetime, which is why it was necessary for the self-serving religious leaders to kill him. And yet there are no clear references to him outside of the Gospels. Although he is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus, the reference is vague and unspecific and seems to be based on hearsay.
The most compelling documentation outside of the Gospels comes from the Jewish historian Josephus. Born around A.D. 38, he obviously never met Jesus. But he wrote of “Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one might call him a man. For he was one who accomplished surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as are eager for novelties. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon an indictment brought by the principal men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him from the very first did not cease to be attached to him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the holy prophets had foretold this and myriads of other marvels concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has to this day still not disappeared.”
Although it can be argued that, less than a century after Jesus’ death, people would know whether his existence was fact or fiction, several scholars believe that this passage was not written by Josephus, but inserted later by a Christian copyist. This theory seems even likelier considering that Josephus wasn’t a Christian.
But, if Jesus was a fictional character invented by early Christians, it would seem logical that those Jews hostile to Christianity would have spread the news of his fictitiousness. They didn’t. Since what they did instead was attack his legitimacy, they probably had no reason to doubt his historical existence.
Other circumstantial evidence in support of Jesus’ physical existence is unlikely to please orthodox Christians. Some 20th-century scholars have placed part of Jesus’ life in India. Since this is not mentioned in any of the Gospels (which are unreliable and probably not written by the people whose names they bear), it has never been given credence by orthodox churches. But there seems to be some evidence that a man with Jesus’ name (Yeshua or Joshua in Semitic languages) was a religious master in northern India in the first century.
Jesus may or may not have traveled to India. But someone must have. Because much of the narrative found in the Bible (in both Old and New Testaments) is to be found in Hinduism, which predates Christianity by at least 3,000 years.
According to the Mahabarata, the epic narrative that includes the Bhagavad Gita, the king is told by a prophet that a man will be born who will destroy the destroyers. Being one of the destroyers himself, the king isn’t happy about this. The prophet tells him what day the child will be born, so the king orders that all male children born on that day are to be killed. In order to save her child, Krishna’s mother puts him in a basket and floats him away on a river, entrusting Vishnu (God) to take care of him. Krishna is found by one of the king’s aides, and is raised to be a prince.
The king’s purge of newborns is similar to the story of the birth of Jesus, and identical to the Old Testament story of Moses. Either we believe in a collective mythology, or we have to recognize a link between Hindu and Christian myths.
It’s likely that Jesus would have had the wherewithal to travel to India, because, if we examine what the Gospels say, it’s clear that he wasn’t a poor carpenter. The wedding at which he turned water into wine is clearly a high-society wedding. What would a poor carpenter be doing there? More controversially, it can be reasonably assumed that the wedding was his own. When the wine runs out, Mary goes to her son and tells him, “They have no wine.” Historians agree that, at such a wedding, it would be the duty of the bridegroom to provide the wine. This would explain why, even though he tells Mary, “My hour has not yet come,” he gives in and works his first miracle.
There has been speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers, and if Jesus was married, then it was most probably to her, as she was the first to visit his tomb after his crucifixion, a duty that would be expected of a spouse.
Some contemporary Christian scholars recognize the need to reexamine the Gospels. Organizations like the Jesus Seminar and the Historical Jesus Movement were formed to examine theological questions from a modern, scientific perspective.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a man named Jesus was born in a manger, became a spiritual teacher and got nailed to a cross 2,000 years ago. In particular, it shouldn’t matter to Christians. What matters is the teachings. If Jesus was really the Messiah, and was capable of working miracles, then there being no reliable, detailed record of his life and his personality is significant—because he must have chosen to have it be that way. Amidst the politics of spiritual capitalism, the most neglected aspect of Jesus Christ is also the most important—not who he was, but what he taught.
It doesn’t matter if the man existed or not - what matters is that the Sermon on the Mount exists, and the existence of such a teaching is as much of a miracle as we need.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the Captain Bligh* of the local Diocese, has punished one of the best AZ hospitals for not letting a patient die. If only they’d done something forgivable, like kill someone, as Olmsted’s predecessor did.
*I’m referring to the movie depictions; the historical record shows that Captain Bligh was actually an unusually good, and compassionate, captain.
A brilliant talk by Chris Hedges, including:
There’s an interesting debate going on between the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross and Carl McColman, author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism.
I’m unqualified to offer scholarly comments on The Cloud of Unknowing, but in her remarks on the character of Thomas Merton, I think Ross is, in one significant way, missing the point.
Yes, with all the carefully manipulated hype we tend to forget that Merton was diagnosed by Dr Gregory Zilboorg as a narcissist and a megalomaniac, and that he was probably an alcoholic and certainly at times a sexual predator. Here is one of his most infamous quotes as regards experience: By contrast to the medieval notion of experience as something to be proved against scripture and tradition, here is Merton, whose view of experience could not be more unlike Bernard’s: “I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts…”
Much of what Zilboorg said about Merton could also be said about Zilboorg, but let’s assume that Zilboorg was absolutely right. Ad hominem criticism is only valid when a person’s public persona is at odds with who they really are (for example, a homophobic public figure who is actively gay, or a “family values” conservative who is a chronic adulterer). In Merton’s case, his own writing paints as harsh a picture of its author as does Zilboorg’s name-calling.
Merton struggled with his faith and his practice all his life, and he wrote about it. Like every contemplative, like every person, best or worst, he was an ordinary sinner, and never claimed otherwise. I think this is why his writing has endured, and will continue to - because contemplatives who struggle with all that comes with body and mind find a companion in Merton. It is his, and our, lust, vanity, anger, self-centeredness and perennial doubt that place him - and all of us, if we open our eyes to it - alongside St. Augustine and St. John of the Cross.
In response to this post, my friend Rengetsu sent me the following comments:
so interesting what you shared about the sufis and naming. in our tradition we look at naming differently. when God changes someone’s name in the bible he is claiming them as his own. abram becomes abraham, sarai to sarah. and many jews who became christians in the first century changed to more greeky names, which I thought was fascinating. when a parent names a child they are taking ownership/responsibility of the child. (same with animals too I suppose). and if that child doesn’t like the name, they can change it.
i didn’t like my first name so i chose to go by my middle name. and you yourself have changed your name.* and i would agree that when you name God or anything it implies a separation from the identity of what you are naming and yourself. however, i would also say that naming implies a relationship… like when you give someone a nickname (bari-sama!).
and what name you give is indicative of the relationship. we name our thoughts to separate ourselves from them, but in other instances naming can bring together (naming a child after a great grandparent, giving a beloved friend or pet a name, taking a confirmation or
i mean, the whole dharma name too fits in with the whole naming thing. what is the purpose of the dharma name? what is its significance? it’s interesting how the concept of names is so similar throughout the world. even the concept of no-name.
* She’s not talking about my Dharma name, but about the fact that Barry Graham is not my given name, but a pen name that stuck, though it has been my legal name for more than twenty years now.