by Sean D. Harmon
While in the gospel of John Jesus bestows the title "Son of God" directly onto himself a total of about six times, and though there are other direct claims Jesus made in all four gospels that were undoubtedly jaw-droppers, he never specifically or outrightly claimed "I am Yahweh." It's interesting to note that the reason for this is not only that the issue was slightly more theologically complex than that, but would have undoubtedly confused and offended Jesus' hearers even more than they already were. Since they probably did not understand the Christian concept of the Trinity, Jesus would have actually had to claim he was Yahweh directly in order for them to grasp what he actually meant, otherwise, they would have simply interpreted him as some nut claiming he was just another deity in the mythological pantheon, or some angelic being in Yahweh's hierarchy. Even in John's gospel, though he laid out some pretty heavy and profound pre-existent Christology, and gave further implications of this throughout his gospel, Jesus still recognized himself as separate from "the Father," which tells us that either Jesus himself or the authors that supposedly put those words into his mouth had to be cautious in how they treated this profound theology and how it was revealed to their audience.
Such subtly is somewhat extraordinary, and that the early Christians were smart enough to figure this out, assuming from a critical standpoint they actually had a hand in inventing or embellishing Jesus' claims about himself, which is the consensus among most secular scholars and skeptics. Whether authentic claims by Jesus or inventions by his followers later on, this cautiousness exemplifies the strict monotheism that was evident in first century Judaism and their extreme cautiousness in how they defined God's unique oneness. So, as the apostles reflected upon his life, teachings, death and resurrection, particularly in the synoptic gospels, we find that Jesus' true and full nature was revealed in a variety of ways. To argue that this developed apart from actual tradition only to be layered into the traditions later on as they evolved over time is difficult not just based on the fact that this was not how traditions were told and preserved in this culture, but how in-depth the theology is ingrained within the stories. What we see in the gospels from beginning to end is an ongoing pattern of revelations, expressions through various narrations and events, subtle clues and hints, and sometimes not so subtle clues and hints buried in extensive theological discourses, wrapped within complex aphorisms, similes and parables, all of which indicate to us that Jesus knew, or at least strongly believed, he had unheralded preternatural authority in ways such as…
And the zingers...
I won't bother giving examples as this would be a waste of time. One can't even open a gospel to those glaring red words without coming across these numerous scenarios. There's no possible way to assume these were just well-intentioned exaggerations or that the dialogue gradually evolved that way as it was being passed and shared as oral tradition since: a) the sheer volume and quantity of dialogue is impossible in this scenario; and b) there isn't enough time for this to have happened gradually. Even if one wants to outrightly dismiss the historical facts about how ancient Near East Jewish cultures treated oral tradition (discussed here: The Q Conundrum; Problem# 6) that most scholars would concur was a stark reality, we're not talking generations of oral tradition, but no more than 60 years or less; 60 years being the maximum date the last canon gospel could have been written.
If we assume the authors and traditionalists made most of Jesus' claims up from scratch, just the remarkable inventive talent that was required on the part of the early Christians, able to subtly weave these claims into numerous orderly accounts, discourses, complex parables and allegories in each gospel is enough for us to stop and pause. In other words, it's easy for someone to argue that walking on water was a formulated legend to prove Jesus' deity quality, but extensive and structured discourses and sayings, such as the parable of the "Sheep and the Goats" or the "Olivet Discourse" or the heated exchanges between Jesus and the other religious leaders takes a bit more focused imagination to suppose these sheets of dialogue were invented from scratch.
Nonetheless, aside from the fact that these situations and dialogues are often complex and very hard to see where these were just created that way, the question still remains: how else can we know Jesus wasn't just a wise Jewish sage who never really thought these things about himself, but instead came from later embellishments by his followers who stamped these ideas onto him themselves and cleverly wove these ideas into these complex dialogues? Not only do Jesus' claims about himself saturate the canon texts, but are found in apocryphal texts as well. These claims are found in the earliest creeds, hymns, intrinsic and extrinsic traditions, both orthodox and heretical.
All the outspoken opponents of Christianity never seemed to deny he made the claims, or that Christians were passing these claims onto him falsely. Celsus argued that Jesus himself was a fraud and a trickster for such claims of immortality. The early Jewish opponents in the Talmud accused Jesus (Yeshu) of being a deceiver, sorcerer and idolater, and even directly confirmed that he was a liar for his presumptuous claims. The best explanation for his execution was because of blasphemy, which drove the Jewish establishment to seek out the most effective method to silence him. Otherwise, we're left with this vast void as to why he was crucified in the first place if he was but a mere good and sensible Jewish teacher who made no such claims. Thus, as critics against the genuineness of these self-appointed claims, we have three external problems to contend with:
In short, the logical answer, especially behind #4, is that they didn't defy other Jewish men this way because such men didn't make the same claims. But these are just the external problems. Let's look at the internal opposing evidence those who deny he made these claims must contest.
With the externals aside, how else can we be sure that the divine Jesus persona wasn't manufactured, whether unconsciously or intentionally, but came directly from his own lips? There are a few reasons from the outset why fabrication is shaky at best, if not highly implausible:
So, basically the manufactured claim argument is not only resting on nothing it can use as factual support, but must disregard points #1 and #3 or deny them as problems and assume #2 works in favor of this argument, or that the Jesus-traditions do in fact date much later. Since I outlined arguments in other articles, rather extensively, why those three points would make invention, at best, seriously wanting, I won't elaborate here. The divinity of Christ and his claims is obviously where the rubber meets the road with the methodology of #3, simply because the claims found within his dialogue saturate the gospel traditions from beginning to end and probably make up anywhere from 50-60% of the entire Jesus-tradition. Other problems, which I will explore here more extensively, can be broken down as follows:
Uniqueness of the claims
Looking at this in more detail, there are also numerous instances of Jesus' sayings that give absolutely no indication of fabrication or a fabrication by any other source written by his adherents we can identify, because most of his teachings are entirely unique -- his use of beatitudes, parables and poetic catechisms are not emulated by any other New Testament writer. J. P Moreland notes "sixty-four instances of threefold sayings" (i.e., "ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open," etc.) that are unique only to Jesus and not used by Luke (in Acts), Paul, Peter, James or any other writer in their dialogue or dialogue of others. So, to assume the claims in the gospels were invented by his adherents, the inventors strangely used a totally unique style of expression that was isolated from the rest of the New Testament community and how they communicated in their own teachings.
Evangelistic complications of the claims
Moreover, there are instances where Jesus makes claims in the context of something else he says that would have caused ambiguity to the readers, which also raises the level of invention improbability. For example, much of Jesus' outlandish claims are stamped with the title Son of man: "The Son of man will rise from the dead," "The Son of man has power to forgive sins," "The Son of man will give his life as a random for many," "The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath," "You shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power," The Son of man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels and repay every man according to his deeds." Since Son of man had ambiguous connotations (terms like "Son of God," "Christ," or even "Son of David" would have been the more likely choice of invention and followed a consistent pattern), was not used in any other canon New Testament work other than Acts and Revelation, and was used very sparingly in later Christian literature, this further makes it unlikely it was invented or embellished by the Christian community (discussed in more detail here: The Evangelists, Son of... da man?).
A more detailed example of this is Jesus' unprecedented claim that he, as the Son of Man, would return on the clouds of heaven and send fourth is angels to judge all heaven and earth (Matthew 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27), who would reside at the throne of God almighty and whom the world would worship in an everlasting kingdom, which was a clear allusion to Daniel's (7:13-14) prophecy about the one who was "like a Son of man" (ben enash -- the divine hero foretold in the book of Enoch, also discussed here: The Evangelists: ). However, what makes this particular claim of his return noteworthy is the fact that Jesus declared as part of the claim that know one, not even himself knew when this day would occur, which is unlikely something invented since it implied a limitation of Jesus' prophetic and preternatural prognosticative abilities. It might suggest embellishment (or that the claim was slightly modified to accommodate questions about a specific date this would occur) but not outright invention from scratch.
Primitivity of the claims
Another example of these types of unique clues and hints within his sayings is Jesus' claim that when he is "sitting on his throne of Glory" at the end of the age, his twelve disciples will sit with him judging Israel (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30), which not only suggests a primitive Semitic sentimentalism but since it does not account for the fall of Judas, the twelfth disciple, this also indicates a very early and authentic saying before Judas' fall, which was left unchanged.
Very early Christ kerygma
Paul's teachings in his epistles, dating to the 40-60's, is exceptionally rich with some of the most elaborate Christology, with Jesus as "Christ," "Lord" (kyrios), "Wisdom of God," and "Son of God" (discussed here: The Christology of Paul). Though Paul declared that he did not immediately seek flesh and blood (meaning he did not consult the apostles at Jerusalem) when he at first converted, the key word is "immediately." Paul makes it clear that after two years, he went to Jerusalem and counseled with Peter and Jesus' brother James (Galatians 1:16-19). Paul also declared that his message was based on doctrine he "himself had received" (1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3), clearly external doctrine that was submitted to Paul from before his conversion. Paul was also aware and acknowledged the authority of the apostolic watchdogs at Jerusalem, whom he submitted the doctrine that he taught to ensure his theology was aligned to theirs (Galatians 2:1-2), indicating a close connection with Paul and the Jerusalem church, a church we know the earliest traditions about Jesus would have originated.
All this strongly suggests that Paul was building his theological foundation on much earlier theology he had already received prior. Other theological connections and evidence of a highly advanced early Christian doctrine are found not only in correlations between individual epistles such as Romans, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Timothy, and Titus (the latter four doubted as being authored by Paul, especially 1 Peter without a doubt), but other early extrabiblical Christian sources found in the Didache, Barnabas, Clement I, Polycarp, Ignatius, suggesting a network of diverse sources that would have been siphoning traditions and beliefs from a much earlier common traditional core.
Moreover, according to various scholars, there is a clear Aramaic substratum underlying the Greek texts of the New Testament, including the gospels (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, ), yet another indication that much of the tradition, most likely oral, dates to a period when Judaism was still the central theme behind Judeo-Christianity, much earlier than the actual Greek texts themselves. Other extensive studies with the epistles have produced additional traces of primitive Christian creeds and Semitic or Aramaic formulae (kerygma) that contain elements of high Christology that can be traced back within the first decade of the Judean movement, and in some cases, within a few years of the crucifixion.
Everywhere we look, we find that the earliest content was not based on teachings of a founder, things we typically expect of other religious philosophies in its early stages of development, but the entire impetus of the gospel message "was understood to be Jesus Christ himself," most importantly his sacrificial death, resurrection and heavenly exaltation, which was evident even among the groups of Ebionites. There is simply no way to argue that this high Christological doctrine, which saturates the earliest traditions, circulated this quickly and early among Jews within these diverse array of sources without it reflecting the things the founder claimed about himself if he never in fact made such claims. To summarize:
Even though your typical secular scholar of today, whether knowledgeable or not about this subject, stakes their belief on the "embellished" claim argument, which we just showed has no legs to stand on whatsoever, the popular Christian Trilemma argument -- Liar, Lunatic or Lord -- isn't much better, because it's much too simplistic. That is, if Jesus wasn't who he claimed he was, then he was a liar, undeserving of our respect and admiration as an honorable teacher; or a lunatic with possible good intentions who should be pitied but certainly not wise, and again, undeserving of our respect and admiration. Since we don't honor and respect liars or lunatics in this day and age, the witnessing Christian hopes to get the average Joe on the street, reluctant to choose between those two options, into a corner and force them to accept the only other logical alternative -- Lord! However, this simply doesn't fly with most skeptics these days, most of which have at least basic knowledge of the subject, sometimes even more than your average Christian, and know that the "embellished claim" argument is good enough to reject this argument, and fully aware that the typical everyday Christian couldn't present a plausible case proving Jesus even made those claims if they wanted to. Moreover, most secular scholars, who usually get the most media attention, still just ignore this argument; or the rare more daring scholar who is willing to take this on, will attempt to work around it and usually declare: "No, there may be other possible options," and indeed there have been a slew of theories created outside the conventional box used as rationales (more on that in a bit).
The lunatic theory
Though the lunatic option was used by a few early skeptics, which was probably the primary reason that produced the apologetic Trilemma argument in the first place, it's pretty much disregarded today by even the most radical skeptics, particularly those knowledgeable about first century Judean history because it's simply too hard to realistically argue. We must assume the extreme gullibility of his Jewish audience, proponents and opponents alike, and their inability to eventually see right through this at some point, particularly the debates he had with undoubtedly the best-of-the-best when it came to rabbis and teachers of his day, all of whom undoubtedly used these confrontations to determine this very thing.
Moreover, ancient kings, emperors, and nobles who went the route of self-proclaimed incarnations always chose culturally known and recognized deities. Notice how a large number of current self-proclaimed Messiahs claim to be Jesus? Ironic indeed. Though Jesus' religious teachings correlated with his culture (some even comparing his teachings to Hillel), Jesus didn't display these parrot characteristics. He didn't imitate or identify himself or attach himself to any recognizable prophet or patriarch honored in his culture. He didn't claim that he was the incarnation of Abraham, Jacob, Moses or David, or any of the renowned ancient prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah or Isaiah; nor did he directly claim to be the incarnation Yahweh, Zeus, Jupiter, Michael, Gabriel or any other famous god or angelic being, pagan or otherwise. Though he may have placed himself on an intimate level with God that most sane Jewish men wouldn't dare attempt, even declaring that he and God were one, he still recognized himself as a separate individual apart from God with the implication that his mission and cause was directly aligned to Yahweh's mission and cause.
He also strangely never characterized himself as the expected political hero the Jews were all anticipating and hoping for (discussed here: The Messianic Matrix, The first century Judean Messiah). In fact, the political ideology prevalent in his culture is ideology he almost entirely abandoned, which at times caused confusion with those around him about his specific role and purpose, and yet an ideology most other historical self-proclaimed messiahs during this era who attempted Jewish deliverance from Rome and the tetrarchy did not abandon. We wouldn't expect a delusional Jew in his day to completely shun these socioreligious, political and cultural norms, or someone who would identify themselves with an authoritative element they weren't familiar with. Not only did Jesus never directly claim to be the Christ (Messiah), and even avoided reinforcing the title when it was heaped upon him from those outside his group (Mark 8:29-30, John 6:14-15), but he himself laid hold to a very unique and unusual title Son of man. As I discussed briefly here and in other articles (here: The Evangelists: ), Son of man is repeated on his lips as a self-designated claim about 80 times in all four gospels, yet none of his adherents identified him this way, nor does any other written New Testament material reflect this title other than Acts the Book of Revelation. It was a claim that was unique, somewhat ambiguous, to our knowledge never claimed by anyone in this culture before or after him, not consistent with any particular cultural norm and most certainly an unlikely choice for a delusional Jew in a culture that so starkly reflected dominating political expectations and idealized hopes.
For the most part, Jesus imitated Jesus. This might portray a very cunning and meticulous conman, but is not a characteristic of someone who is delusional. There were instances where some in the crowd thought he was mad because of some of the immediate claims he made and the uniqueness of those claims, but they indeed also identified an authority that was above and beyond anything they recognized previously (Matthew 21:23; Mark 1:22). There is a vast difference between a misunderstood and self-absorbed "narcissist" and a delusional psychotic. Jesus was indeed narcissistic as we would define it in a natural sense, yet if he was divine, then he was merely expressing a truth about himself that was simply undeniable, and for him to state anything to the contrary would have been untruthful. In a natural sense, however, narcissists typically expect praise and admiration from others, or attention seekers and may not exactly accomplish things in the conventional sense, ruffling a lot of feathers in the process, yet there is a line even they won't cross because they still posses cognizant wisdom against such notions of divinity and immortality unless of course they're delusional. A deluded individual also may have a narcissistic personality, but, and though may exude some form of intelligence, they're typically incapable of making sound and rational judgments about themselves and others, at least in a consistent fashion. As a result, a disorientation of their mental capabilities inevitably shows in their actions and the things they say.
Individuals who make extremely assertive claims Jesus made are also often identified as "malignant narcissists." Notorious cult leaders like Jim Jones and Charles Manson fit this mode. They can be intelligent and very charismatic, yet they are also often pathological and unpredictable, and any real creativity or uniqueness they show usually manifests itself as vague, incoherent or nonsensical blather, such as Charles Manson's racist rhetoric, Jim Jones self-persecution rants, or Ted Kaczynski's rants about modern technology. Malignant narcissists also often become dangerous and self-destructive because of their condition, especially as their delusional condition worsens, which in most cases becomes especially evident to those outside the group.
Jesus not only rarely showed self-destructive abusive traits or violence, which is the core trait of these severe "psychopathological" conditions, but he also bucked against the social and political tide that was prevalent in his environment. Though he acknowledged a connection to their cultural beliefs and viewpoints by affirming (in very subtle ways) that he was indeed the one they were anticipating, he never expressed or defined any political agenda that was associated with that specific expectation, was indifferent to imperial authority, and had an extremely unusual pacifist view towards violence. The latter may be exceptional to that culture in light of the political turmoil at the time, as well as the unquenchable hope of political deliverance; deliverance that often manifested in bloodshed and taking up of arms; a messianic anticipation that had a prominent fixation within this culture that I pointed out earlier. We would expect such assertive claims from extreme narcissistic dictators, along with a typical pattern of delusion, aggression and brutality on their part, but one would not expect pacifists such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martian Luther King Jr., or John Lennon to show extreme narcissistic characteristics or spew out claims of divinity because this is just not how this particular personality functions.
Jesus' religious narcissism also doesn't fit the typical lunatic pattern. Cult narcissists, such as Jones, Manson, Major Applewhite and David Koresh, some of whom ruled over rather large followings, often suffer paranoia and generally keep out of the public eye for these very reasons, mainly out of distrust and/or avoid being noticed by those outside the group, or as their ability to reason deteriorates. Though Jesus frequented rural areas, he rarely ever hid from the public (on occasions to avoid direct danger or rest from the demands of his public ministry and the pressing crowds), nor did he reside in the desert, isolated commune or compound like those at Qumran; in fact, he rode into Jerusalem through the cheering throngs at the height of his ministry -- John indicates it was a week before his final Passover (John 12:1-19). He traveled to a number of different locations, stayed with whomever opened doors to him, including some rather prestigious individuals, spent a great deal of time in cities like Capernaum and Jerusalem, particularly during feasts and celebrations, periodically taught in synagogues and at the Temple, engaged in numerous public discourses and debates and was known by many people outside his general following.
Others have argued that maybe Jesus didn't know he was wrong, not because of delusion, but because he got carried away with religious fervor and just didn't know any better. This doesn't work because even people who aren't very intelligent aren't religiously narcissistic to this extreme. Even putting that fact aside, however, assuming this would make him extremely naive and gullible, one who lacks sound judgment, superior knowledge and perception and a man who is not as in control as the traditions portray him. He is someone who could have been easily dismissed or socially disposed of with less drastic means by his opponents. He would have been incapable of presenting convincing arguments to the contrary, able to counter discussions used to challenge his authority and knowledge, and unable to pull off the powerful influence needed to fool both those inside and outside his group. As I mentioned, there is an unrealistic portion of gullibility needed to be supposed here on the part of this community as well, which is also outside the scope of historicity of ancient Jews, a culture that expressed extreme prudence, suspicion and discrimination of foreign beliefs or concepts that didn't fall within specific cultural and social norms (discussed here: The Theories, Superstitious believers).
As evident in the gospels, Jesus' exegesis and knowledge of scripture and tradition, his ability to engage in equal discourse with the rabbis who tried to confound him with theological issues, perplexing questions and debates, and able to talk his way out of situations that could have shed serious doubt on his authority was unparalleled, all of which shatters any hint of lunacy, lack of superior wisdom or a man who wasn't in control. His family and townsmen may have doubted his sanity because his claims bucked against their own preconceived political and messianic expectations, or just offended their sensibilities on a personal level, but the religious authorities certainly knew he was perfectly cognizant, which made it impossible to simply discredit his authority or dismiss him as a fool. They knew he was an insidious and calculating charlatan at best, a political threat at worse, requiring the necessity to have him permanently silenced by other drastic means. So to summarize:
The liar theory
If we assume Jesus was a liar, which is our best option, this is where the area can get very gray. Some skeptics have no problem declaring Jesus was a fraud and who was conscious of his fraudulent activity, but for many, this is much too antagonistic and extreme. We know that Jesus asserted preternatural authority and superiority within himself and above all others, yet wise and sane men are smart enough to know where not to cross this line and when they are outside the realm of the impossible or unknowable. There are some who will attempt to balance the line of liar, ever so delicately, and argue that he may have stretched the truth a bit, performed powerful trickery (some critics have even gone so far as to suggest he had real supernatural powers!) just to get them to believe he was divine in order to get their attention; yet his intention (whatever that may be) was obviously well meaning since he did in fact oblige the outcasts and downtrodden of Judea, in addition to his pacifist views, therefore, we can still hold a modicum of respect for him as a good and wise man, or -- the ends justified the means.
This view conforms quite favorably to the world's neutral view of Jesus as a wise sage who was presenting a moral or egalitarian society to the world, the "Golden Rule," or some ethics revolutionary like Confucius, and they always quote excerpts from Matthew's famous beatitudes (Matthew 5-7) the "Sermon on the Mount" to support this. However, if he was a liar, and he certainly would have been cognizant whether his claims were true or not, then this must be ruled out since lying and deception grossly contradict any moral code he was attempting to lay out (i.e. "treat those as you would want to be treated," "you will know them (false teachers) by their fruit," or "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," etc.).
Right here is where the Trilemma argument is at its best, simply because this does not work idealistically or philosophically. We don't honor leaders whose tactics are based on deception, regardless of the intent. Deception on any scale almost always indicates dishonorable motives, or is somehow used for purposes of self-gratification or an agenda at the expense of others one way or another. Moreover, how much more do we loathe preachers who try and shove an impossible morality down our throats that they themselves don't keep, especially when he directly reproached the religious leaders for their own dishonesty and hypocrisy (examples: Matthew 23:15; Mark 7:6; John 8:44)? This type of hypocrisy and audaciousness typically annoys people, especially in the 21st century where political correctness and religious relativity is valued on a much higher scale. We also know that when we have a narcissist who thinks highly of himself coupled with the fact he's being deceptive, even if just a little, this is a sure sign of an individual whose intentions are not honorable.
When we analyze this in detail, as I have previously done, the only actual option for us in light of the facts, and though this may have varying degrees, is that Jesus was a fraud, and since there is no factual or historical way around Jesus' claims -- many of which imply the impossible such as divine authority and moral perfection -- this is pretty clear if the resurrection never historically happened. This might be a bit of a problem to the mainstream and the world in general that attempts to view Jesus in a neutral yet respectable way that is fair and as inoffensive as possible, but this is irrelevant to most atheists who have no problem stepping completely outside that box and accepting the idea that Jesus, as well as the religion he founded is a fraud. Since proving Jesus was honorable at this point is not plausible, and is merely trilemma rhetoric anyway, we'll move on to the next issue.
Probably the most important thing to solve at this point, as a liar, is motive -- the driving force -- and if arguing within the gray area of Jesus being liar and good intentioned wasn't tricky enough, this is where it gets impossibly irresolvable. Moreover, this needs to fit into the scope of first century second Temple Judaism in the land of Judea, so there is a whole historical context behind this that cannot be excluded. The scholars bold enough to take this on as they analyze the reality of Jesus know this, which is why they seem to hit a wall at this point with outlandish theories literally pulled out of the air to try compensate for this problem, with no facts or even logic in most cases to adequately support these theories.
What makes this even more difficult to solve is that Jesus' motives obviously were not at all militant or even political, as were most of the zealous orthodox Jews this era produced before and after him, many of whom were also designated messiahs by their followers and who shared a similar fate. In fact, not only did Jesus not express even a hint of opposition to Roman rule or the Herodian Tetrarchy, but actually displayed an apathetic view about it, and didn't seem to have any specific political agenda for Israel at all... and yet he was crucified regardless. Furthermore, in direct contrast to this problem is that Jesus no doubt preached an apocalyptic message (a coming kingdom) that we plainly see expressed throughout each gospel and is as easy to prove its authenticity as it is to prove most of his divine claims. So, the problem is trying to find a motive outside of a political one and one that is purely religious.
There are those who try and counter this by pointing out some accounts where Jesus indeed seems to be taking a military stand, such as when he affirmed that two swords were enough for his disciples (Luke 22:38), or when he instructed his disciples to buy a sword (Luke 22:36), or when he declared he did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). However, the meaning of these sayings has been up for debate, and most theologians argue that they were clearly figurative. Indeed, this would be the likely option since he also stated things that directly counter these statements, such as "those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52), or his teachings against retaliation (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29), or his commendation of the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), or "my kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), or when Jesus endorsed paying tribute to Caesar (Mark 12:14-17), or when he rebukes Peter for attacking the High Priest's servant with his sword (John 10:18-11).
Some have tried to counter this with the idea that Jesus was really militant, yet his followers layered in the former attributes with the latter to try and offset this fact. But they certainly would not have left in things he said contrary to the portrait they wanted of Jesus that they could have very easily just left out, so the best and most logical option here clearly seems to be that he was speaking metaphorically, spiritually, merely misunderstood or there is some other explanation for those militaristic-like sayings. There are also those who bring up his actions of violently cleansing the Temple, yet this was clearly a religious act, not a political one, and since we know his motive was religious, religious conflict in a religious environment is par for the course, thus an outburst of religious fervor at least once in his ministry is certainly to be expected.
Karl Bahrdt was one of the first to accept Jesus as a fraud and tackle this not-militaristic dilemma head-on. He theorized that Jesus belonged to a secret order of the Essenes (a sectarian sect of Jews, believed by some as the Qumran community, who were the conveyors and preservers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and wanted to get Israel to abandon the idea of a political Messiah (something they were clearly anticipating -- which we know from both biblical and extrabiblical sources) in favor of a purely spiritual one. Jesus, working in conjunction with this group, performed various staged trickery and made outlandish claims in order to establish his authority, then faked his physical death and resurrection to get their attention -- an end that justified the means -- and henceforth remained alive and well, but unseen like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz, directing the logistics of this imaginary Essene movement behind the scenes, called Christianity later on. This certainly provides a religious alternative to a militant Messiah, and even an explanation for his claims and crucifixion, and might sound somewhat plausible on the surface to those who have no knowledge about the history, the logic, or the sheer lack of reality with this theory.
The first thing we're always forced to mutilate at the starting point of these theories is history. It should be pointed out here that the so-called Christian-Essence connection, once asserted enthusiastically by some scholars long ago, has since been debunked by a variety of scholars (particularly with the discovery of the Qumran Dead Sea scrolls). Religious quarrels and schismatic struggles between different religious groups and subgroups was a common theme during the first century. Had Christianity anything to do with the Essence community, it stands to reason that they would have presented both pros and cons for the sect in their writings, or used Jesus to address certain issues relevant to the movement, yet the complete silence about this sect in the New Testament, even in the epistles, logically indicates they had nothing to do with the Essene sect. Craig Evans and John Collins sets the record straight…
"The famous dictum of Renan, cited approvingly by Dupont-Sommer, held that Christianity was 'an Essenism that has largely succeeded.' But this dictum was wide off the mark. It would have been truer to say that Christianity was an anti-Essenism that succeeded because it rejected the inward turn of the older sect, with its obsession with purity, and sought instead to spread its message to the broader world."
James Charlesworth concludes...
"He was close in many ways to the Essenes and Pharisees; but he was neither an Essene or a Pharisee."
James VanderKam and Peter Flint also sum it up...
"Recognizing that different views exist on many issues, in The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls we have tried to avoid unnecessary criticism of other scholars. Discussions of Jesus and the scrolls, however, have included several theories that can only be described as unfounded, even bizarre, and that are not accepted by recognized scholars in the field."
"That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever; and that they come out of the most subtle air, and are united to their bodies as to prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward."
This suggests a belief void of any bodily resurrection. No problem. If we're as imaginative as Bahrdt, we'll just suppose an Essene "secret society" or covert group within or outside the group in order to take care of these little factual conflicts, thus free from all historical restraints (overlooking the fact that the Essene community was in fact a secret society to begin with). Once we expose the historical fallacies, we are then usually forced to mutilate logic. Doesn't the idea that Jesus would fake his bodily resurrection seem counterproductive to his goal of a spiritual Messiah? In fact, because of this, the early Judeo-Christians never abandoned the messianic expectation of a political figure they had previously anticipated and argued that this role was temporarily put "on-hold" after Jesus had ascended to be at the right hand of the God and would return to fulfill that role (see Matthew 24:42-44; Mark 13:26; Luke 12:36-37; John 14:2-3; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 4:15-16, 5:23; ; -81 Timothy 6:13-14; Hebrews 10:37; 1 Peter 1:13; James 5:8; Jude 1:14-15; Revelations 16:15, 19:11-16, 22:20). Secondly, Luke, a physician, usually plays a convenient role in this conspiracy as either the pharmacist who prescribes the necessary magical anti-crucifixion drugs to Jesus or the actual post-crucifixion revivalist. However, this too disregards the issue of why Luke himself was not mentioned anywhere in the traditions (in fact, he is not mentioned anywhere in any narrative gospel record, canon or apocrypha), something that would seem to be the case if someone who actually wrote a gospel was present or in contact with Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
These were but some examples of where history, pure logic and common sense get lost or twisted within these imaginary scenarios.
Then we are usually forced to mutilate reality. Of course, to assume that one could realistically "fake" a first century crucifixion must outrightly reject the facts about such executions. The purely imaginative political and religious conjectures proposed by Bahrdt that take place to make all this successfully happen make the conspiracy surrounding Area 51 look like a walk in the park, yet this actually was the foundation for many scholars willing to put their credibility on the line and step outside the safe conventional box, and who used variations of Bahrdt's ideas for their own versions and theories in, what can appear to be, the desperate attempt to explain a motive, which usually ends up with the swoon hypothesis (crucifixion resuscitation). The swoon hypothesis was a secular necessity to reckon with the crucifixion of Jesus since this was, and still is, one of the few Christian accounts that even most skeptics agree is a historical certainty. In other words, one must find a reason behind the crucifixion of Jesus if he was a pacifist as all the earliest traditions portray him as. The swoon hypothesis is an 18th century theory that became a sensation in the 19th and 20th century, yet died out some decades ago for the sheer lack of historicity behind, and indeed I took the time to break this down in detail in another article (here: The Swoon Theory) so I won't elaborate here.
Quite frankly, some of the outlandish scenarios that have attempted to uphold this hypothesis leaves one to wonder if it wasn't easier just to accept the Jesus-myth theory and be done with it, which is probably why some skeptics like Acharya S still desperately cling to that argument today. Do you see the inevitable dilemma here? The point to all this is that we know that Jesus was probably not delusional, and if he was not divine then he was surly a fraud to at least some degree, and a very clever one, yet grappling to find a motive that drove him to perpetuate such a fraud inevitably takes us further and further away from the traditional Jesus and totally outside of the historical framework, where we must imagine a Jesus almost totally removed from this historical framework, which, as we've seen, has a natural tendency to veer into the ridiculous. However, these extreme naturalistic theories are a necessity to bypass the supernatural explanation behind his motive we find in the traditions. In other words, it's not so much that all those previous scholars who proposed these outlandish theories are themselves mentally imbalanced, it's just that they need an extreme explanation to meet the extreme historical and cultural complexities behind Jesus' motive as a Jew and the historical Jewish culture he was apart of.
Although the theory asserting Jesus' connections with a secret order within the Jewish Essene community was bold and far-fetched, it was necessary to get past the many problems surrounding Jesus and his motives; yet it obviously falls miserably short because we are then required to completely twist first century Judean history and even twist the realm of logic. We're forced to buy a religious conspiracy as a motive that falls miserably short of what history describes of the Essenes themselves and assume that pious Jews, as were the Essenes, would go to such unethical lengths to concoct a scheme for an esoteric religious or spiritual agenda -- an agenda that reflects views they didn't even hold -- and a plot that would have been antiethical to the supposed spiritual agenda they were trying to convey.
Then it drives us to look for other justifications, inevitably leading into bigger conspiracies, and this is what spewed out 20th century sagas written by authors such as Hugh Schonfield, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Dan Brown that provided much more conspiratorial and essential motivational factors that were at stake. Royal bloodlines, secret mystical brotherhoods, hidden treasures, religious relics, and Vatican conspiracies not only give us a thrill, but an adequate motive to explain this extremely complicated figure of Jesus. However, in order to make anyone take these big stakes alternative theories seriously, they must work around the historical barriers of the first century, or simply tackle these barriers with false and distorted facts head-on. This was indeed a clear tactic Baigent and Leigh of Holy Blood Holy Grail understood and utilized as a means to cap off their theoretical scenario about the Holy Grail. As a result, they paid a dear price for this with a whole lot of scorn from the community of biblical and historical scholars, and they probably would have avoided this subject all together if it was possible to ignore Jesus' first century Judean roots with any sort of legitimacy. Baigent even admitted that it was necessary to explore first century church history in order to "synthesize" their theories of the medieval church with first century Judeo-Christianity. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, who classified his book as fiction, cleverly sprinkled very brief discussions about this subject, yet avoided first century historical details for the most part and instead focused on the subject of the alleged Magdalene marriage cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church of the subsequent centuries.
In spite of the lack of historicity these theories have with first century Judean culture, the theoretical premises will indeed make for some satisfying monetary gains from book sales, however, most conventional scholars don't take them very seriously and consider them the fringe, and I demonstrated earlier some examples why this is the case. Hence, most critics and even outright skeptics serious about the subject generally don't touch these theories with a ten foot pole.
Skipping through the motive minefield
Looking past these theories and into the scope of actual history, the problematic questions still linger. What was Jesus' motive? Was he actually an atheist, or, being raised Jewish, did he believe in the God of Israel, Yahweh. Did he support the Torah? Did he support Israel? The portrait that Bahrdt and the other theorists paint of Jesus is very contradictory to the one that is portrayed in the early Christian tradition and one we would expect from this historical era:
Though they debated tradition, or the external societal regulation that encapsulated the Mosaic law, Jesus' scriptural interpretations and his overall theology was agreeable for the most part with other Jewish leaders and teachers, and at times he used this common ground to shut them up. He also endorsed complete devotion and loyalty to Yahweh much like his peers. The only fault the religious right found against him were the claims he made about himself. In other words, other than the claims, he wasn’t that radically different from them.
The doctrinal teachings of cult leaders are usually offshoots of the religions around them, yet in many ways are radically different from the religious norm in regards to doctrine and theology. In other words, find me a Christian cult leader that makes outlandish claims about themselves -- i.e. David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, et al. -- and I’ll find you men who express very unorthodox views in other areas of even basic theology and religious belief and views that most fundamentalist theologians would frown on.
There is no question that Jesus was a devout Jew and that his message was a religious one, that his orthodox doctrine was aligned with the orthodox religious norm for the most part (other than the claims about himself), that he had an apocalyptic message about God's coming kingdom and the end of the age (which was more spiritual-based than political), and that he of course would be the front-runner of this kingdom. So, to sum up these problematic issues in defining a motive for Jesus, they include:
Hence, the problem becomes apparent. All that is left once the sensational, absurd and unhistorical layers are removed, and in light of the audacious and fallacious claims he made, is the same Messiah dilemma we had from the start if he wasn't who he actually claimed he was. How do we classify this and what was his motive as a Jew?
In this rather lengthy article, we are simply still left with unanswered questions and unsolved issues. When one takes the overwhelming evidence we laid out in the beginning of this article into consideration, there's simply no getting around the fact that Jesus assumed unconventional and even divine authority that no sane and God-fearing second Temple Jew would have dared assume. This forces the historian at a crossroads. Either they must accept the resurrection as affirmative authority of his claims, or create their own acceptable Jesus and blindly fool themselves into thinking that Jesus is in the same category as other honorable religious leaders of history only misunderstood or misrepresented by his subsequent followers. In order to achieve the latter, one must completely dismiss fact and deny Jesus ever made the claims his followers believed he made about himself, which is demonstrably false, as I have shown in the beginning of this article. The third option is to acknowledge these facts but reject his divinity, hence, simply accept Jesus as a very intelligent and adept fraud. This is where I respect most of the early Jewish scholars who reject the claims of the Christian resurrection, because at least they recognize Jesus could not have been anything but a fraud in light of the facts and have the gonads to publicly declare it. The problem with this option, however, is that it doesn't just end there, because one must then deal with the next issue that presents an even bigger problem… the clear motive that drove this supposed fraud.
Here we covered the unsolved soicioreligous and philosophical dilemma secular scholars and skeptics must deal with about Jesus, so next, I'll discuss the unsolved fundamental issues they must deal with about Jesus… the resurrection.
Click for that article. Or go home
1. Origen, ibid., book 1, chap. 28, 41 (www.newadvent.org).
2. Sam Shamoun, Jesus in the Rabbinic Traditions (www.answering-islam.org).
3. I discussed this in more detail here. The "telephone game" analogy, as well as form criticism argued by Rudolf Bultmann in the early 20th century, which supported the idea that the oral traditions went through stages of redaction and evolution even before they made it to written texts, has since been debunked by more recent scholars like Kenneth Bailey, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn, who argue formal controlled oral tradition. Oral tradition in the Mediterranean was kept by the elders of the church in each community (see Acts 11:30, 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1). No one could recite the traditions other than whom the elders deemed qualified. There was some flexibility in how the traditions were told, but there was no inventing or "adding to." The sayings, poems, parables, etc., were even more rigidly kept. Recommended books and articles to check out:
James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006.
Kenneth Bailey's thesis, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels (www.biblicalstudies.org.uk).
4. J. P. Moreland, The Historicity of the New Testament: Other Distinctive Features of Jesus' Sayings (www.bethinking.org).
5. John M. G. Barclay, Colossians and Philemon, p.59; 2004.
Vernon H. Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions, p.7-10; 1963.
Moreland, The God Question, p.108-109; 2009.
6. Neufeld, ibid., p.21.
7. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p.101; 2005.
8. See Human Deities.
9. See List of Jesus Claimants.
10. James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus; p. 18; 2008.
11. Dr. Stephen Diamond, Messiahs of Evil (Part 3); 2008 (www.psychologytoday.com).
12. Carl Vogel, A Field Guide To Narcissism (»); 2006 (www.psychologytoday.com).
13. Diamond, ibid. (Part 2); 2008.
14. ibid., Terrorism, Resentment and the Unabomber (»); 2008.
15. ibid., Messiahs of Evil (Part 2).
16. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea scrolls and Christian origins, pp.26-27; 2000.
James C. VanderKam, Peter W. Flint, The meaning of the Dead Sea scrolls, pp.326-327, 330; 2002.
J. B. Lightfoot, III. Essenism and Christianity. (http://philologos.org/__eb-jbl/essenes.htm#three).
Also see Essenes: Scholarly Discussion.
17. Craig A. Evans, John J. Collins, Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls, p.35; 2006.
18. James H. Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus, p.60; 2008.
19. VanderKam, Flint, ibid., pp.321-330.
20. Josephus, War of the Jews, book 2, chap. 8:1-11 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).
21. Craig A. Evans, Peter W. Flint, Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, p.88; 1997.
22. Josephus, ibid., book 2, chap. 8:11.
23. James W. Deardorff, Survival of the Crucifixion: Traditions of Jesus within Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism: Resuscitation Hypotheses
24. Ehrman -- scholar and self-professed agnostic -- commented about Holy Blood Holy Grail: "Of the hundreds of professional New testament scholars whom I personally know – people who study these texts for a living, and who are trained in the ancient languages necessary to do so – there is not a single one, to my knowledge, who finds the claims of the book to be historically credible.” Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, pp.141-142; 2004.
25. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, pp.161-162; 1982.
26. Michael Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp.19-21; 2007.