Jesus of Nazareth: myth, relic or truth?

Cairo, March 19th, 2011

Dear Ignacio,

In a couple of hours I will visit the Great Pyramid of Khufu. 4500 years after its construction it is still one of the greatest monuments ever built by human hands. I have to admit I am mostly impressed not so much by its size, but mine next to it.

And now you could tell me that I will use anything to make metaphors (that is a clear consequence of being obsessed with – or just determined by – my work)... but yes, this comparison suits me to continue with what you pointed out in your letter. ‘It is not possible’, you told me ‘it cannot be real, something as extraordinary as the fact that God could dwell with man. Isn’t it rather that our desire and our inability to understand life constructs this as a reality? It does not seem rational to claim that divinity could reveal itself as human being’. Indeed: a man less than 2 meters high faced with the 145 meters of a Pyramid...

We have to go step by step. The dimension of the Mystery does not prevent us from approaching the question with an open-mind. First we have to see whether the claim of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is the God-man, is in fact historical, that is, did He really believe what He said and what is reported to us in the Scriptures. Because if Jesus of Nazareth did not make this claim, if it turns out that the claim is really our claim, a claim He did not assume, then the whole thing is untenable, a pure human allegory.

Where to begin? Let us start with the documents we have: the New Testament. These are stories that tell us about the life of Jesus, what He did and said on His passage through this world. Many people do not accept the historical validity of these texts, although they acknowledge they have a truly extraordinary content with respect to their teachings on life and other aspects. One of these persons happened to be me. My view of science and man made it impossible for me to believe that this all had really happened. Then, as my life was passed, I became aware that many things happen around us, and that many of these things are extraordinary and form part of the Mystery which cannot be explained by a purely scientific gaze. The truth is that if what the New Testament records did not happen, then its content is a pure literary creation and therefore it is nothing that occurred in history and nothing that seeks to have something to do with your life and mine.

For this reason, I propose that we stop and dwell upon the sources that permit us to know the historicity of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his claim to be God with us. For me this was all a discovery, Ignacio, because I judged for a long time the Catholic faith a kind of folklore tainted with superstition. And yet, I was taught that the documents that they handled had some historical validity.

Well, the bus is going faster than I imagined and before arriving at Giza I want to make you a summary of the documents we have at our disposal to see whether Jesus of Nazareth and his extraordinary life are real, i.e. if they really happened at a concrete moment in history.

I shall begin with the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus. The most important is a Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who wrote in a.d. 93 the Antiquities of the Jews, a history of Israel written to be understood from a Roman perspective. Jesus is cited two times and what the text tells us coincides with some of the most important aspects given also in the Gospels: He was admired by the people, followed by many, he performed miracles, He died on the cross condemned by Pilate, His followers were still living at the time that Josephus composed his book. There are other ancient authors that mention Jesus, too: Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus (56-120), Pliny the Younger (ca. 111), Suetonius (ca. 120), and Lucian of Samosata (ca. 115-120). It is true that there are not too many, but I find sufficient evidence: none of these writers belonged to the Church and so none of them could have benefited in any way from ‘inventing’ the historical existence of Jesus.

The historicity of the New Testament

Let us now turn to the New Testament. The key to establish the historical credibility of a document involves the time that separates the written document from the events it records. Historians tend to acknowledge that a text is ‘historical’ if it does not date back more that two generations, between 70-80 years. In that span of time it is almost impossible to implant a fiction-as-history of a major event, either religious or otherwise. The experts offer two arguments:
a) In these two generations there are living witnesses
that could disprove the invention of an event, thus making it
impossible for the fable to be installed in collective memory.
b) In the case that there is an intention to forge a legend,
there must remain some traces of the controversy between its
fabricants and those who have not seen what the fabricants
pretend to have seen.
The disciples of any teacher are usually the first to be interested that the memory of the teacher should be conserved intact, for it is precisely that content that convinced them. They are much concerned that there should be nothing added or erased concerning the figure of their teacher, and this interest is most intense in the first two generations following the teacher’s life. Do you believe that any follower of Gandhi would permit us to divinize him?

The life of Jesus of Nazareth, his word and deeds, and the acts of his followers are collected in what is known today as the New Testament. It is written there that five, fifteen, twenty and thirty years earlier a young Jewish teacher with exceptional personality showed a new vision of God and of human life and captivated many people. It also tells that He claimed himself to be God and that this was the reason why He was crucified, died and buried; and it tells that He was later raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. On the other hand, it describes how He lived in a certain time and place, under known circumstances, and that He was treated by public authorities known to all as well as by relatives and acquaintances still alive at the time the New Testament was composed. I can now shed some light on the credibility of all these things.

What are the most ancient documents of the New Testament? The Letters of Saint Paul. That is why they possess such a great historical value. The Pauline Epistles were most probably written in the decade between 50-60 (1 Cor, 2 Cor, Rm, Gal, Phil, Col, Eph). His thoughts were already elaborated when he wrote them down: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Lord of history who died and was resurrected for us. Paul uses Christological concepts that he does not explain, presuming that the communities to which he writes will be able to understand them. We can easily conclude that if Paul was the author of these concepts, he would have accompanied them with the pertinent explications, for who writes in order not to be understood? That is how we arrive at the observation that there are some concepts rooted in the Christian community prior to the twenty years after the death of Jesus. The establishment of these concepts should be granted the sufficient time necessary to have been formulated and taught, to be explained and repeated to the point of their being fixed as common terms of usage which can be presumed and commonly used as in letters of Paul.

There is another relevant fact: Paul uses some texts written earlier than his letters, texts that would have been circulating among the communities to which he wrote. That is why we find in the Pauline Epistles sources of an incalculable historical value thanks to their proximity to the events of Jesus Christ. There is a clear date: Jesus died in 30, Paul writes in the Fifties with the certainty of a divine Christ that is the savior of all through His death and resurrection.

This trustworthy source, as you have surely understood well, Ignacio, does not prove either the truth of Jesus’ claim nor his condition as incarnated God. We can only arrive to this conviction by faith, that is, from the event in one’s life that makes one conscious that all this really has something to do with oneself. This cannot be arrived at by scrutinizing documents. Nevertheless, it should now be clear that the person of Jesus really did exist, and that His claim about himself comes to us from the heart of history.

When I arrived at this conclusion in my life, I became aware of a great paradox: the hypothesis of Christianity as a legend without historical fundaments seems rational because it avoids reason’s confrontation with a mystery, but this hypothesis does not hold water against the proof of history, that is, it is less reasonable. Although the really problematic point here is not so much the historical existence of Jesus, but the historicity of his claim. The denial that in the mind and heart of Jesus existed the claim of being God for us, on the one hand, and the affirmation, on the other, that some years later somebody – Paul and some anonymous communities – put these things into Jesus’ mouth and then succeeded to deceive the world, this is a greater credulity than that of a faith that trusts the historical data that opens to the Mystery of a presence that goes beyond reason without annihilate it in any moment.

The Gospels and their sources

With respect to the Gospels, we can affirm that the current version is a translation or a second modified edition of an original, redacted between the end of the Sixties and the Nineties. The Gospels also use sources that were written between ten and fifty years after the narrated events, principally the stories of the passion date back to the first ten years of Christianity. The events were thus narrated in less than two generations after the death of Christ, and in fact the Apocryphal Gospels and other text with fantastic additions redacted from other religions (the Gnostic apocrypha, for example) do not start to appear until much later, after the Nineties.
‘The research of the last one and a half centuries has identified beyond doubt the source used by Luke to compose his Gospel as source Q and the Gospel of Mark, along with some other sources proper to Luke himself. These sources must have existed in Greek before the Forties and Fifties. By carefully examining these sources from the perspective of a bilingual philology it becomes evident that the three sources used to complete the public ministry of Jesus, his passion and his resurrection were composed originally in Aramaic. They all stem therefore for Christians of Aramaic tongue, i.e. from Palestinians for people from a region very close by, which had not yet assimilated the Greek language. We must therefore conclude that at least some of the Semitic origins of Luke’s sources were written in the first decade after the death of Jesus, between a.d. 30 and 40’. [viii]
On the other hand, to suppose within the Hebrew context that the identity of a man could have been transformed to be identified with YHWH, and adored as such, and not at the end of a long series of generations but within mere years of his scandalous death, betrays a complete lack of any knowledge of the Jewish people. In several parts of Empire, the deification of a creature was something more or less simple, but there was one exception where this was impossible: among the Jews. They adored and worshiped YHWH, the one God, whose figure could not be represented, whose name could not even be uttered. To identify a man with YHWH, whoever he was, would have been considered by the Jews the greatest sacrilege ever, and in fact it still is.

The Gospels are not a biography of Jesus

By insisting on the historicity of the texts of the New Testament I do not want to give you the impression that these texts should be considered ‘history’ in the modern sense of the word, Ignacio. They are not biographical texts, they are historical texts. They lack aspects of historical accuracy, but not historical reality. We have seen this often in class.

A modern biography has its own exigencies with respect to the life of the person in question: chronological precision, documentation of the acts and the cultural and social context in which the life of the character took place. The Gospels lack all these elements essential for a modern biography. Practically the whole childhood, adolescence and youth of Jesus is missing; there is no information about
relevant personalities that appear in the story like Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas or John the Baptist; there is just a bit or even no information concerning the social and religious situation in Palestine; content of the story seems to be formed by the unity of different episodes of which only a small number is localized temporally and geographically. They are also not meticulous descriptions of what Jesus said or did; they would not pass the test of what counts today as ‘biography’.

Obviously the Gospels are truly extraordinary pieces of literature, both for the uniqueness of the main character and the exceptional intention of the authors who wrote these texts. These characteristics mark the form of the narration but they do not take away its historical validity. It is important that you see this in order to avoid confusion and so that we can also go on with our dialogue. This is my warning for you: the demonstration of the historicity of Jesus Christ’s claim does not prove its truth. This leap must happen in the heart and in the head of each one of us.

What does this have to do with my life? With yours? With this thirst that I was talking to you about from New York? The thirst that every man has to know why he is here?... I know that you will reach a satisfactory conclusion if you think about it, if you act as you always shown me you do: with a broad and profound vision of reality, without taking anything for granted, but also without considering anything as being a priori suspicious or false.

Why, if two thousand years ago God indeed spoke to man, why shouldn’t an echo of this conversation come so far that it even reaches us?

We have arrived already. Now we have to cross some more dunes in order to contemplate the Great Pyramid of Giza... I think that this is going to help me to better understand the importance of the disproportion of this work compared with its author: how is it possible that something like this would emerge in the middle of nowhere?

Your old professor



[viii] J. M. GARCÍA, Orígenes históricos del cristianismo, Encuentro Ediciones, Madrid, 2007, p. 54.

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