How does the Catholic Church respond to arguments made by historians, scholars and archaeologists that claim that a biblical Jesus never actually existed but was, rather, an idealized mythological Jewish “national hero” cobbled together in the first century by Saul from bits of ancient agrarian myths to appease the Jews?
It is well known that the Jews resented Roman rule and the Hellenizing influence on their culture, religion and society. Many Jews – opponents of Rome and her Hellenistic allies – were xenophobic ‘nationalists’, with dreams of a warrior priest ‘messiah’ and of future empire. Did Saul simply accomplish the task of making the Romans kosher by making Judaism palatable to them?
There are no historical records or evidence to indicate that Christ ever existed. His contemporaries gave no mention of the man who allegedly revamped the whole of human spiritual thought and practice during the first century.
Rather interestingly, the ‘living godman’ (Jesus Christ), thought by later Christians to have been an historic contemporary of Saul, is unknown to Saul himself. He made no claim to have actually met Jesus in life and he says nothing about any ‘human’ existence’ the godman might have had. In Saul’s writings there is no miraculous birth, no holy family, no prodigious youth, no baptism. For a seeker of an ‘historic’ Jesus, there are remarkable voids in Saul’s writings.
The miracles that pepper the gospels, and helped elevate a Jesus figure into a deity, are nowhere to be found in Saul’s letters. Indeed, it is clear that Saul was not talking about any ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ at all (and he certainly made no reference to a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’). His entire testimony is entirely about an ‘other-worldly’ Christ, a deity that had existed from the beginning of time, whose supreme self-sacrifice had taken place ‘in times eternal’ or ‘before the world began’ (Timothy 2.1,9). In the mid-years of the first century, Saul brings into existence a Jewish variant of the birth/death/rebirth cult (which had characterised agrarian cultures for centuries) in which the individual (rather than a town or a community) has the opportunity for ‘salvation’.
There is nothing intrinsically improbable in a radical 1st century rabbi called Jesus. And any figure who emerged as a sage or soothsayer in ancient Palestine is unlikely to have left much evidence of his existence.
But whilst we might entertain, perhaps, a few epithets of reported wisdom from such a guru, it would remain extremely doubtful that any attributed words were actually spoken by him, whatever the claims made today for “oral transmission.”
On several occasions the gospel writers quite specifically report Jesus’ conversations when neither they nor any other humans were present. Who would have had the faintest idea of what Jesus said when he was on his own? For example, chapter 17 of the Gospel of John is entirely taken up with a monologue addressed by a solitary Jesus to God himself.
Matthew (4.3,10) tells of JC in the wilderness and having conversations with Satan.
Now how would Matthew know what was said? Are we to imagine Jesus reminisced, “Hey guys, one time I was in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and guess who showed up … ?”
As it happens, we have an inordinate amount of Jesus dialogue. Nothing particularly novel or unique is put into his mouth, though much of it is contradictory or obscure. None of it comes from a reliable source.
The elapsed time between the gospel reports and the supposed events that they describe is at least 40 years for ‘Mark’ and 60-70 years for the other three Gospels. And just who was witness to that fabulous nativity, 30-odd years before the grande finale? At the most generous understanding, ‘Luke’ and ‘Matthew’ were recording hearsay testimony a century after angels, shepherds and wise men went calling.
The unembellished truth is that the gospel accounts were written by eyewitnesses to nothing but their own skills of fabrication.
Christianity subsequently fixed the 27-book canon of the New Testament in the 4th century. If Christ never existed, then that puts the whole of Christianity in a rather tenuous position. I’m not talking about the existence of God. That debate goes round and round and has for centuries. I am speaking of the existence of Jesus Christ, the man who claimed to represent God on earth and who launched an entire cult whose beliefs evolved into accepted traditions – and, in the case of the Vatican, considerable political power and wealth for those involved.
How does the Church tackle these issues?