Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Deeper Story (or, What Can We Know About Yeshua ha-Notsri?)

1) What is the meaning of human existence?

2) What is the meaning of death?

3) Is there more than the material world?

4) Who was Yeshua ha-Notsri...

Yeshua ha-Notsri is better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  What can we know about this person, from a purely historical point of view?

First of all, he was a historical figure.  
An enormous wealth of historical evidence exists that places him in Roman-occupied Israel in about 30 A.D.  Even barring the Gospels, other writers' mention of him is enough to establish his existence, by standards of historical scholarship.
  • Tacitus, in about 116 A.D., describes how the Christians followed one "Christus", who suffered "the extreme penalty" under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius (Roman emperor from 42 B.C. to 37 A.D.)
    His report is quite disparaging towards the Christians, so it is unlikely that this was a later Christian interpolation.
  • Josephus, in about 93 A.D., wrote a famous passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum, which almost certainly has suffered Christian interpolation.  However, most scholars believe that part of the Testimonium is genuine, based on textual and stylistic analysis.
    For example, Origen wrote in about 243 A.D. that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ.  This casts doubt on the sentence, "He was the Christ" in Josephus' work, and probably dates the interpolation to later than Origen's time.  However, in the same work, Origen quotes Josephus regarding "James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ".
    So we have definite testimony linking this person Jesus, or Yeshua, to the one who was called "Christ" or "Christus" in Latin.
    We can with relative confidence accept the opinion of most secular scholars, that the basic factual statements of Josephus here are genuine: that Jesus amazed many people among the Jews, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, that he had a brother named James, and that a group of his followers survived after his death.
  • The Babylonian Talmud mentions a person who was probably Jesus several times, calling him Yeshua or Yeshu. The work is strikingly antagonistic toward Jesus and his family and followers, but it does offer some valuable historical data points.  Specifically, it describes the death of Yeshua during Passover, that he had followers, and that he was opposed by the Jewish rabbis.
  • Lucian, who was a noted satirist in the 100's A.D., wrote about the early Christians and their basic beliefs.  His satirical account describes Yeshua as a crucified teacher who had many followers.
  • (This one is mostly a point of interest, not a strong historical reference.) Thallus was a Samaritan historian from the 100's A.D. about whom only a little is known. He documents a mid-day darkness and earthquake occurring in Judea around the time of Jesus' death.  He attributes it to a solar eclipse. (Modern understanding of solar eclipses rules this out as an explanation for a three-hour darkness like that described in MarkMatthew, and Luke.)
    Unfortunately, this particular passage is known only as quoted by Julius Africanus, a Christian scholar from the 200's A.D.  It may not be genuine, which is why I only include it for completeness' sake. The passage is interesting in that if it is genuine, Thallus here provides an explanation for the darkness, rather than denying it.
These references are from a variety of different authors from different regions.  In science, experiments may be repeated dozens of times.  However, according to the norms of historical scholarship, the basic facts about Jesus' life are very well-established. The number and diversity of sources that support these facts makes them very solid by historical standards.
For comparison, only about eight ancient sources have written about Hannibal, who fought Rome in the First Punic War in the 200's and 100's B.C.  Some of them are contemporaries, but some were first recorded 200 - 400 years after the events.  The earliest manuscripts we have of them date later than that.
These sources establish Yeshua as a Jewish teacher who attracted followers, was opposed by the Jews, was crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and whose followers remained together for at least some time after his death, despite persecution at times.

An important non-canon Christian source is the Didache.  The Didache was widely disseminated by 100 A.D., though it may have been written in whole or in part much earlier.  The Didache outlines important practices of the early church and is a very interesting document overall.  It was lost for centuries, then rediscovered in 1873.
For the purpose of historical inquiry about Jesus, its most important function is probably corroborating major parts of the Lord's prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount, and demonstrating that a group of Jesus' followers were worshiping him by this time.

Now I turn to the Biblical sources. These sources must be taken in light of their authorship.  However, honest scholarship demands that they cannot be simply discarded. Historians would examine the text, the corroboration, and the nature of the events described and decide what is probably legitimate and what is probably not.
For example, for many years, historians believed that The Iliad was fiction.  But archaeological discoveries have largely confirmed the existence of the city of Troy, the Trojan War is now an accepted historical event, and now most historians believe that the basic events described in The Iliad happened.

First, I note that the gospel stories agree with the secular historical story described above.

The next important point about Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John is that what we have today is almost without a doubt what was originally recorded, with very little significant variation.  
  • Textual comparisons of known versions of the New Testament show that two-thirds of the text is identical between the versions, with the only differences being spelling of names or single words.
    Of the one-third remaining, most are spelling or grammar mistakes.  "Few or none" affect any theological doctrine.
  • The versions of the New Testament we have today come mostly from the early Greek or Latin translations.  However, manuscripts have been found in a dozen or so other languages, with superb agreement between previously unknown texts and those in use for centuries. According to Wikipedia, if the Greek manuscripts were lost, the entire text would be present in these other manuscripts.  If these were lost, the New Testament could also be assembled from quotations by early Church Fathers alone.
  • Extant manuscripts number in the ten-thousands.

The next point is that the gospels (and Acts) were written within 50 - 100 years of the life of Yeshua, according to secular and Christian historians. Pauline Epistles appeared somewhat earlier, some by 25 years after Jesus' death in 33 A.D.  
Particularly, 1 Corinthians was most likely written in 53 - 57 A.D.  1 Corinthians is significant because it contains an important confession of faith, believed by many to be an early creed.  Read it, then please, let no one continue with the idea that belief in the resurrection developed legendarily over time. Other Biblical passages and non-canon sources demonstrate that belief in the divinity of Yeshua was also fully present by this time.
For comparison, other ancient sources are usually 200 or more years removed from the events described.  Many are more than 500 years removed or even 1000 years removed.  Examination of these sources shows that legendary embellishment does occur, but not within the first 300 - 500 years.  I'm particularly thinking of the legends about Alexander the Great.
I also note that legendary material about Jesus did develop, and was refuted by believers at that time as incorrect.  I'm thinking here of the Apocryphal gospels. These gospels do contain the marks of legendary development, particularly in the case of the "Gospel of Peter".
I won't get into the archaeological support for Luke-Acts, but it is significant. If you're interested, email me or do a quick Google search.

To be clear, I am not demanding that anyone agree with me about what this means.  However, I believe that any free-thinking individual must come to terms with what happened concerning Yeshua ha-Notsri in Israel twenty centuries ago.
In summary, the reason I am compelled to this faith? 
According to every historical document known, Jesus was tortured to death by the Romans.  But within only 20 years of his death, his followers were loudly proclaiming that he had risen from the dead and that he was God, despite a strongly monotheistic background in a religiously-based society.  This occurred despite all previous Jewish understanding about the Messiah. They continued to proclaim this fervently, despite Roman and Jewish opposition.  Except for Judas and John, all of the original apostles eventually died for their belief in the resurrection of Yeshua ha-Notsri. People sometimes die for things that aren't true.  But no one dies for a belief he knows isn't true. 
One simply must account for this situation in some intelligent way. 

Now, the really pertinent question at this point is #3: is there more than the material world? 
Basically, if there is nothing besides the material world, then Yeshua actually rising from the dead is out of the question.  Some other explanation must be found.

But if that's the route we are taking, we must admit to ourselves that we are barring anything non-material, axiomatically and from the beginning.

Every religious belief system accepts some things axiomatically, as fact and without proof.  Most of them  accept something like, 
A spiritual world that is not necessarily scientifically measurable exists.
Agnosticism says, 
One ought not believe in what he does not know.
Atheism says, 
Nothing exists beyond the material world.
Like any axiom, we may choose to accept the one that leads to the most meaningful combination of conclusions.  For example, geometry gets very boring if we do not accept axiomatically that points and lines can exist.  We can't mathematically prove that they do.  We just accept it.  
If you don't start with some axioms in describing the world around you, it gets very boring.  For example, in my personal belief system, I once started with, 
The experience I think I'm having is, in fact, happening.  If it is not, I can pretend it is.
Really, I have absolutely no way of knowing that.  But I decided to accept without further questioning that I am actually interacting with the world I think I see.  I also accepted without further questioning that "logic holds in the material world" and "it is not true that logic never holds in the spiritual world, if one exists". (Logic may hold at all times in the spiritual world, but I know even less about the spiritual world than I do about abstract algebra, which isn't much.  Thank God that I don't have a test on the spiritual world coming up in two weeks...)

So we know that we must accept some things without proof.  I'm not judging what you decide to accept. But please, as a favor to me, do not accept that the material world is all there is and then arrogantly announce that you're being purely logical.  That drives me crazy, and I've seen too much of it.

So there is my deeper story, and how I have dealt with the story of Yeshua ha-Notsri.

Be blessed. Thanks be to God.  


  1. This is almost exactly what was discussed in the adult education class of the church I'm visiting. I love it.

  2. Do you mind if I pass this along to someone ( I think she'd be interested, and I know she listens thoughtfully to cogent arguments about religion, which this is.

  3. @Sarah - Great to hear! I'm glad I'm not too far out in left field.

    @Grant - Sure!