Historicity of Jesus

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are mythologized history telling of a controversial first century Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef who gathered a following that provided the seed that grew into Christianity.

At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians, most of them Christian, analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

But other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.

Academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism.

The arguments on both sides of this question, mythologized history or historicized mythology, fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists, that credible scholars might think Jesus never existed, here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. In the words of Bart Ehrman: “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references, nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death, even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era, there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time, the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.”

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples, or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague, but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family; but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians.

Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded. “Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospels are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.”

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts. We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matters sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began. For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other. If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20 question quiz at ExChristian.net.

The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John, because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons. They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words, “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

These issues and more lead to a conclusion that seems inescapable:

Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.

In a soon-to-be-released book, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, the author argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith.” Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning. Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.

Sumerian Story of Creation

Sumer, or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and writing, architecture and arts, astronomy and mathematics. Their religious system was a complex one comprised of hundreds of gods, rites and cosmology. According to the ancient texts, each Sumerian city was guarded by its own god; and while humans and gods used to live together, the humans were servants to the gods.

The Sumerian creation myth can be found on a tablet in Nippur, an ancient Mesopotamian city founded in approximately 5000 BC.

The creation of Earth (Enuma Elish) according to the Sumerian tablets begins like this:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…

It is interesting here to note that no one god is responsible for creation, as even gods are themselves part of the creation.

Sumerian mythology claims that, in the beginning, human-like beings of extra-terrestrial origin ruled over Earth. Those beings, or gods, could travel through the sky in either round or rocket shaped vehicles. These beings toiled Earth’s soil, digging to make it habitable and mining its minerals.

The texts mention that at some point the gods mutinied against their labor.

When the gods like men

Bore the work and suffered the toll

The toil of the gods was great,

The work was heavy, the distress was much.

Anu, the god of gods, agreed that their labor was too great. His son Enki, or Ea, proposed to create man to bear the labor, and so, with the help of his half-sister Ninki, he did. A god was put to death, and his body and blood was mixed with clay. From that material the first human being was created, in likeness to the gods.

You have slaughtered a god together

With his personality

I have removed your heavy work

I have imposed your toil on man.

…
In the clay god and Man

Shall be bound,

To a unity brought together;

So that to the end of days

The Flesh and the Soul

Which in a god have ripened
That soul in a blood-kinship be bound.

It is interesting here to note that the spirit is connected to the body, as is the case in many other religions and myths.

This first man was created in Eden, a Sumerian word which means ‘flat terrain’. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Eden is mentioned as the garden of the gods and is located somewhere in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Initially human beings were unable to reproduce on their own, but were later modified with the help of Enki and Ninki. Thus Adapa is created as a fully functional and independent human being. This ‘modification’ was done without the approval of Enki’s brother, Enlil, and a conflict between the gods begins. Enlil becomes the adversary of man, and the Sumerian tablet mentions that men served gods and went through much hardship and suffering.

Although not the exact creation story involving two trees in Eden, Adapa, with the help of Enki, ascends to Anu where he fails to answer a question about ‘the bread and water of life’. Opinions vary on the similarities between these two creation stories, but one thing remains clear: immortality is meant for gods, not for men.

Oldest City In the Americas

ancient-site-of-Caral,-Peru

The Sacred City of Caral in Peru is a 5,000-year-old metropolis which represents the oldest known civilization in the Americas, known as the Norte Chico. When it was first discovered, archaeologists had no idea of the extent of this great city, nor its age. It took some 90 years before researchers discovered its immense significance.

While the inhabitants of Caral lacked ceramics and limited art, they built huge monuments, including pyramids, plazas, amphitheatres, temples, and residential areas, had extensive agriculture, ate a varied diet, developed the use of textiles, used a complex system for calculating and recording, built water supply, and developed an intricate irrigation system. They traded widely with neighbouring societies, reaching at least as far as the Amazon jungle, as evidenced by carvings of monkeys.

Interestingly, no evidence of warfare has ever been found in Caral. No defensive structures, no weapons, and no bodies with violent injuries.  Archaeologists believe the people of Caral were a peaceful culture who spent considerable time studying the heavens, practicing their religion and playing musical instruments.

flutes-found-at-Caral

One of the most surprising findings at Caral was the discovery of 32 flutes made of condor and pelican bones, and 37 cornets (musical instrument like a small trumpet) made of deer and llama bones. The musical instruments, which date to around 2,200 BC, were discovered in the exterior of a circular plaza of a pyramid complex, an area where hundreds of people could gather for community events.

The instruments are decorated with engraved figures, including monkeys, supernatural birds that combine features of some other creatures such as felines or monkeys, bird-faced snakes, a double head comprising a bird and a snake, and two anthropomorphic figures. They were played by blowing into the central hole and covering either the left or right hand holes.

In 2001, researchers held the Archaeo-Musicological Research Workshop for the Flutes of Caral, in a bid to reproduce the sound of each one of them, just as the ancient dwellers might have heard them millennia ago. 

Another rare discovery that shed light on the civilization found at Caral and in the Supe Valley was a segment of knotted strings known as a quipu.  Quipus, sometimes called ‘talking knots’, were recording devices that consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings from llama or alpaca hair, or made of cotton cords. It is known that by the time of the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. Together, the type of wool, the colors, the knots and the joins held both statistical and narrative information that was once readable by several South American societies. In some villages, quipus were important items for the local community, and took on ritual rather than recording use.

quipu-inca-peru-1

Until the discovery of the quipu in Caral, no other examples had been found that dated back earlier than 650 AD. So the significance of this finding was that it was now apparent that inhabitants of Andean South America were using this complex recording system thousands of years earlier than they initially thought.

Across from the main staircase of one of the pyramids (platform mounds) in Caral is a solitary monolith known as ‘Huanca’ (the standing stone), which stands at 2.15 meters in height. Archaeologists believe that this monolith was used for astronomical and ceremonial purposes, and for determining the time of day. Measurements of the Huanca’s position in relation to the pyramids found that it sits exactly due north of one of the pyramids, known as ‘Huanca pyramid’. The angle of the stone to the top of the pyramid marks the of the summer and winter solstices.

The-monolith-Huanca-in-Caral

Very little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Norte Chico civilization which inhabited Caral. There is abundant evidence of drug use normally associated with Shamanism, which may provide some clues, but there is hardly any art in Caral, one of the key sources that archaeologists use to learn about the daily life and beliefs of ancient civilizations. Some scholars claim that the very few human remains found at Caral are sacrificial victims. However, in reality there is nothing to indicate that the individuals had been sacrificed as opposed to normal death.  

There is one artifact that may serve to shed light on the beliefs of the Norte Chicos.  Etched onto the side of a gourd (a hard seed pod used for carrying water), which dates to 2280-2180 BC, is a depiction of a sharp-toothed, hat-wearing figure who holds a long stick or rod in each hand, which has been named the Staff God.

Staff-God-Gateway-of-the-Sun

Interestingly, the same image of the Staff God appears on pottery urns of the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures dating from 1,000 BC, all the way through to 1,000 AD, and the deity is figured prominently on the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca. Could beliefs in a Staff God have begun with the Norte Chico civilization in Caral nearly 5,000 years ago and dispersed outwards to influence later Mesoamerican civilizations?

For an unknown reason, Caral was abandoned rapidly after a period of only 500 years.  It is believed that climate changes forced the inhabitants to find a new location for their city, although where exactly they went is uncertain.  However, the fact that the Staff God, and the use of the quipu is found some 2,000 years later in other locations throughout South America, suggests that the Norte Chicos took with them their rich culture, religion, technology, and practices, and came to influence some of the greatest civilizations of Mesoamerica that followed over the next 4,000 years. 

Disturbing News About Tea

Tea is supposed to be a relaxing, refreshing, and healthy, but it could be one of the riskiest things people ingest. At least, that’s according to a new study released by Greenpeace earlier this month that found a number of popular tea brands contain high doses of pesticide residues. Some teas even tested positive for the long-banned DDT.

Greenpeace published two reports looking at tea in China and in India. In both accounts, the levels of pesticide residues found in tea samples were disturbingly above the safe limits set by the World Health Organization.

China and India are the first and second largest producers of tea, respectively, and a good deal of their tea is exported internationally. The United States imports almost all of its tea, and tea companies are required to produce documentation that proves their compliance before being approved by the FDA and customs. However, Greenpeace’s studies focused on China and India, which are the largest producers, as well as the largest consumers, of tea. Their food safety regulations differ wildly from those of the United States.

In 49 Indian tea samples tested, nearly 60 percent contained at least one pesticide above the safety limits set by the European Union. In 18 samples, the quantity of pesticides were “50 percent more than the maximum level.” A whopping 33 samples contained DDT. In the report on China’s teas, nearly 67 percent of samples (18 total) contained pesticides that have been previously banned under the Stockholm Convention. “Richun’s Tieguanyin 803 tea [from China] showed up with 17 different kinds of pesticides!” reported Greenpeace. In total, 14 samples from China contained pesticides that are known to harm unborn children or cause genetic damage.

Brands tested were from 8 of the 11 top tea brands such as Twinings, Tata Tea, Tetley, Brooke Bond, Golden Tips, Goodricke and surprisingly, the No. 1 tea brand: Lipton. In Greenpeace’s studies, three of four Lipton samples, “contained pesticides that are banned for use on tea plants and are highly toxic. Altogether 17 different kinds of pesticides were found on the four samples.”

“As the world’s best-selling tea brand, Lipton is taking advantage of China’s loose pesticide control measures at the expense of its Chinese customers,” Wang Jing, Greenpeace food and agriculture campaigner, told Greenpeace East Asia.

Pesticides found through the test included a number of pesticides that Greenpeace reports are a result of “complicated and confusing” regulations. For instance:

“As of May 2014, a total 248 chemical pesticides have been registered under section 9(3) of the Insecticides Act (1968) for use in India, for all crops. However, the rationale for permitting these remains far from clear. For example, the list contains Endosulfan, which has been subject to a separate comprehensive ban by decision of the High Court as of 2011.”

Pesticides found included methomyl, an insecticide known for harming the nervous system; dicofol, a chemical related to DDT; and endosulfan among many others.

To the news of the findings, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), one of the largest companies reported in the study, said it complies with the law. “We have internal HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) processes for all our factories,” HUL told DNA India. “Samples of raw materials and finished products are regularly sent to third-party testing laboratories. Our data does not show the presence of any unapproved chemicals and we fully comply with the Indian foods regulations as stipulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).”

HUL added it was looking to phase out pesticides with its suppliers by 2020.