Was Jesus really born? – Virendra Parekh
“Missionary propaganda would leave the impression that Jesus was a mighty figure who took the world by storm as soon as he appeared on the scene. However, the ‘solid historical figure’ melts into thin air at the first brush with modern historical research. Biblical and Christological research undertaken in the West during the last two and a half centuries has cast doubt on the historicity of every aspect of the life of Jesus, including his existence as a historical person.” – Virendra Parekh
“Let me tell you at the outset that Jesus is no mythological mumbo-jumbo like your Rama and Krishna, and even Buddha. On the contrary, he was a solid historical figure whose miracles were witnessed and vouchsafed by many contemporary people,” said a Jesuit missionary to Sita Ram Goel. Let us have a closer look at this ‘solid historical figure’.
Historicity of Jesus as described in Gospels has been one of the principal dogmas of all Christian denominations. Now, as Ram Swarup used to say, historicity by itself does not mean much. You and I are historical persons, but that fact by itself does not confer greatness or any other virtue on us. However, when historicity of the founder is touted as a point of superiority, we are inclined to examine it a little more closely.
The missionary propaganda would leave the impression that Jesus was a mighty figure who took the world by storm as soon as he appeared on the scene. However, the ‘solid historical figure’ melts into thin air at the first brush with modern historical research. Biblical and Christological research undertaken in the West during the last two and a half centuries has cast doubt on the historicity of every aspect of the life of Jesus, including his existence as a historical person.
Albert Schweitzer, the world famous theologian and missionary, admitted that, “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of the God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth and died to give his work final consecration, never had any existence. This image has not been destroyed from without. It has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by concrete historical problems which came to surface one after the other and … refused to be palmed down to fit the design on which Jesus of the theology has been constructed…”
Silence of the Pagans
The history of ancient Rome has been recorded in great detail. There is a vast body of historical and philosophical literature written in or referring to the time-frame when Jesus is supposed to have walked the earth. But that literature is oblivious of the mighty figure called Jesus Christ. Seneca (2 BC-66 AD), Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), Martial (40-102 AD),Plutarch (45-125 AD), Juvenal (55-140 AD),Apuleius (d. 170 AD), Pausanius (d. 185 AD) and Dio Casius (155-240 AD) do not mention any Jesus or Christ. Epictetus (50-100 AD) refers to Galileans starting withJudas the Galilean who led the Jewish revolt against Rome in the first decade of the First Century, but not to Jesus of Nazareth who is supposed to have come from Galilee shortly afterwards. There is no reference to any Jesus in any pagan work of the time.
“The name of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Antonius, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature…. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system….” says Edward Gibbon in his classicDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Read it between the lines to grasp what he wants to convey to a largely Christian readership without causing offence. He adds, equally meaningfully, “those among them who condescend to mention the Christians consider them only as obstinate and perverse enthusiasts who exacted an implicit submission to their mysterious doctrines without being able to produce a single argument that could engage the attention of men of sense and learning.”
There are a few words or stray passages referring to “Chrestus” or his worshippers in Pliny the Younger (60-114 AD), Tacitus (55-120 AD), Suetonius (70-120 AD) and Sulpicius Severus (d. 400 AD). The word “Chrestus” (“good” or “agreeable”) was used as an appellation for characters belonging to several sects. It did not mean anything like ‘Christ’ or ‘Christos’. That alone can explain the attempt by a Christian scribe to scratch the “e” in Chrestus and replace it by an “i” in a manuscript of Tacitus.
Critical scrutiny has shown that all these references either do not relate to Jesus of Nazareth, or are influenced by Christian tradition, or are clever Christian fabrications. Ian Wilson concludes that “in all this there is scarcely a crumb of information to compel a belief in Jesus’ existence”. Paul Johnson comments that fabrications “occur throughout the history of Christianity up to Renaissanceand even beyond”.
Sita Ram Goel has pointed out that word “Christian” does not appear in the Christian literature itself before 140 AD. On the other hand, anti-Christian polemics which appears for the first time around 160 AD, starts by questioning the existence of a character called Jesus Christ.
As per Christian tradition, Jesus was a Jew who lived in Palestine during the first 30 or 33 years of the era which is supposed to have begun from the year of his birth. One would expect him to get a pride of place in the writings of Jewish historians who lived and wrote during the same period or a little later. It is, therefore, strange that they are silent on Jesus or the religion he is said to have founded. Philo (20 BC-54 AD), who wrote a history of the Jews, knows no Jesus Christ and no Christians. Nor does another historian of the same period,Justus of Tiberius.
The most interesting case is that of Flavius Josephus who lived from AD 36 or 37 to 99 or 100. He has authored two monumental works – The Jewish War in 77 AD and the Antiquities of the Jews in 92 AD – which are regarded as a major source for the history of Palestine in the first century. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, his works have been doctored by Christian scribes to impart a semblance of historicity to Jesus. Christian apologists point to two passages, one long and the other very short, which mention Jesus as a wise man and also as Christ. But scholars have proved quite convincingly that both of them are either clumsy Christian interpolations or have been tampered with by Christian scribes.
Here they are as they occur in the modern editions of Antiquities of Jews.
(1) Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was doer of miraculous works…. He was Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of many of the principal men amongst us, (i.e. Jews) condemned him to cross (April 3, 33 AD), those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day (April 5, 33 AD)…. (VII, III.3)
The dates in the passage are those which are held by the modern Church, they are not supplied by Josephus. The whole passage is a later interpolation. According to Prof. C.K. Barrett, “The authenticity of Josephus’s reference to Jesus as it stands now is very questionable. The passage is found in all the manuscripts (but none is older than eleventh century) and was known to Eusebius (fourth century) butOrigen (first half of the third century) does not seem to have read it, at least in its present form, since he plainly tells us that Josephus did not believe Jesus to be the Christ.”
(2) … so he (Ananus, the High Priest) assembled the Sanhedrin (assembly) of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, … and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of law, he delivered them to be stoned…. (XX IX.1)
The authenticity and credibility of this passage is also dubious because its account of the character of James (as a law breaker) and his death (by stoning) is contradicted by other early accounts.
The vast rabbinical literature of the Jews, composed during the first two and a quarter centuries of the Christian era, contains only five authentic references to Jesus. But they “do not conclusively establish his historicity, as none of them is sufficiently early”. Moreover, “they are so vague in their chronology that they differ by as much as 200 years in the dates they assign to him”. None of the five Jesuses fits the Christian scheme of Jesus Christ’s birth or life or death. TheTalmud betrays no knowledge of Jesus independent of the Christian tradition, and it is conceded by most Christian scholars that it “is useless as a source of information about Jesus”.
The quotation marks in the sub-title are used advisedly. In traditions influenced by Christianity, the phrase ‘gospel truth’ signifies something absolutely certain, beyond the pale of doubt. However, the evidence of Jesus’ historicity as provided by gospels is so full of contradictions and inconsistencies as to provide good reason to doubt everything about him, including his existence. These have been noticed not just by sceptics and agnostics, but also by ardent believers. As far back as the fourth century, St. Augustine had said that “only on the authority of the Church could he believe the Gospels.”
Ian Wilson, a practising Catholic, says: “it does not need anyone with a Ph.D. in theology to recognize that the Christian Gospels can scarcely be the infallible works fundamentalists would have us believe”.
Will Durant says: “In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one Gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church.”
Purely by way of illustration, let us see what Gospels say on most elementary details about Jesus.
(a) Genealogy of Jesus: Two of the four Gospels – Matthew and Luke – give the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew lists the supposed ancestors from Abraham onwards (1.1-16). Luke traces Jesus’ supposed ancestors all the way to Adam and thence to God. Abraham, of course, figures in his list, too. When we compare the two lists, we find that in Matthew there are 39 generations between Abraham and Jesus. In Luke there are 55 generations between Abraham and Jesus. Matthew lists 27 generations between David and Jesus, Luke lists 42. Of the 26 names that occur between David and Jesus in Matthew, only four occur in Luke – and three others with similar spellings. And even among these few names, the order differs. And yet both the lists, as they occur in the Gospels, emanate from God and must be true.
(b) Year of Birth: Then again, in which year was Jesus born? “Jesus was born … during the time when Herod was king,” says Matthew (2.1). Now Herod died in 3 BC. That would place birth of Jesus in 4 BC or 3 BC at the latest. “It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius; Pontius Pilate was the Governor of Judea, Herod was the ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip was….” says Luke (3.1-3) These verses put the date of Jesus’ birth to 2 or 1 BC. The same Gospel also tells us that “at that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the Governor was Syria….” (Luke 2.1-3). Now, a census did take place when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. But that happened in 6 or 7 AD. But all these dates – 4 or 3 BC, 2 or 1 BC or 6 or 7 AD – must be taken as having God as their authors since they occur in the Gospels.
Look at the basic contradiction in the twin claims about Jesus being the descendant of David, and also being born of a virgin mother. If Jesus was born of a virgin, if Joseph had nothing to do with his being conceived then how can his descent be traced through Joseph to David?
Such contradictions and discrepancies mark every stage, every event in the life of Jesus: the place of his birth, the date of his birth, his ministry, his miracles, his trial, his crucifixion and resurrection. It is neither possible nor necessary to list all of them here.
Biblical scholars have compiled them with great diligence. The findings and conclusions of their research are available to anyone with relatively small effort. Among others, for example, Arun Shouriehas documented them in great detail in hisHarvesting Our Souls: Missionaries, Their Design, their claims (ASA Publications, New Delhi, 2000). Small wonder that no responsible theologian or historian is now prepared to construct the life-story of Jesus from material provided by the gospels.
“But that is the whole point. You are nit-picking, going on and on about the discrepancies among the accounts of an event in different gospels. The details of Gospels are not what is important. What matters is the figure of faith that they weave,” the missionaries would say.
Although this is a somersault from tall claims about a solid figure of history as opposed to mythological mumbo-jumbo, we would let it pass. There is no doubt that millions of Christians through the ages have derived solace and guidance from the Gospels.
The Hindu response to this argument would be: if faith is what is important, what is the reason to prefer Jesus over, say, Ram or Krishna? As figures of faith they too have sustained millions upon millions of people for far longer than Jesus. Moreover, they have done so without the help of the highly aggressive, well-oiled and well-heeled machinery of the church. What is the need for conversion if one figure of faith is to be replaced with another?
- History of Hindu-Christian Encounters: AD 304 to 1996, by Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1996
- Missionaries in India, Arun Shourie, ASA Publications, New Delhi, 1994
- Hindu View of Christianity and Islam, Ram Swarup, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1992
- Jesus Christ: Artifice for Aggression, Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1994
- Profiles in Deception: Ayodhya and Dead Sea Scrolls, N. S. Rajaram, Voice of India, New Delhi 2000
- The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer, English translation London 1910 reprint 1945 p. 397
- Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon Modern Library edition p. 442
- An Analysis of Christian Origins, Georges Ory, London, 1961, pp. 33 and fn 38
- Jesus: The Evidence, Ian Wilson, Pan Books 1985, p. 51
- A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 26-27
- Jesus Christ: An Artifice for Aggression, Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1994, First Reprint 2001, p. 5
- The New Testament Background, ed. C. K. Barret p. 277
- Did Jesus Exist?, G.A. Wells, 1986, p.12 with reference to J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, London, 1925, and M. Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition, New York, 1950, as quoted by Sita Ram Goel in Jesus: An Artifice for Aggression, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1994, p. 4
- An Analysis of Christian Origins, Georges Ory, London, 1961, p. 39
- Jesus: The Evidence, Ian Wilson, Pan Books, 1985, p. 30
- The Story of Civilisation, Part III, Caesar and Christ, Will Durant, Fourth Printing, New York, pp. 556-57
» Virendra Parekh is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai.