In the annals of history Jesus is undoubtedly the most revered and well-known man. In spite of having four biographies written about him in the form of the first four Gospels of the New Testament, he remains an enigma. The cause of this consternation is that the four Gospels do not form a seamless whole. For the pious these inconsistencies must be overlooked but in this blog I will produce a reality check on the facts and list what could be myth. Were the Gospels in fact the gospel truth about the life and times of Jesus?
Main picture: The Dead Scrolls provided an evocative insight into one the sects contemporaneous with Jesus’ life. Whether as Barbara Thiering contends Jesus was an Essene is a moot point. Nevertheless these scrolls do throw a new light on the times when Jesus was alive.
In the early 1990s, I read an erudite tome by Barbara Thiering entitled Jesus the Man. The overarching premise of the book was to pigeonhole Jesus as being an Essene, an ascetic sect living an existence of extreme piety on a desolate portion of the Dead Sea shores. In many ways – in my mind at least – it bore similarities with Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Both authors take established facts and haphazardly connect the dots to everything thereby creating a fruit salad.
In Barbara Thiering’s case, the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls firmly establish the beliefs of Essenes and that their base was on the Dead Sea, is insufficient evidence to prove that Jesus was an Essene. Notwithstanding this, Thiering’s book did provide a kaleidoscope of impressions relating to the age when Jesus was alive as it provides an insight into the zeitgeist of the era or at least a segment of the population.
Historical accuracy of Jesus’ birth and the nativity scene
Ironically it is Christmas Day every year which for me raises certain of these questions afresh. According to Biblical Scholars it would certainly be wrong to suggest that the 25th December is the actual day on which Jesus was born. Apparently the reason for this “error” was intentional because in ancient times there was a pagan festival on that date. Ultimately what happened is that the 25th December was purloined by the nascent Christian faith for reasons of expediency as the birthday of Jesus.
The main reason advanced in the New Testament for Jesus’ parents travelling to Bethlehem from Nazareth was due to a Tax Census decreed by King Herod whereas in fact it was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (51 BC-21 AD), the governor of Roman Syria, who did so.
According to Like 2:1-7
All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Luke’s description of this census, which required travel to one’s home towns, and is dated by Luke to be “in the days of Herod” (Luke 1:5), is not consistent with the census of Quirinius in AD 6, which was several years after the death of Herod and was limited in scope to Judaea, not “all the world”.
Aside from the fact that the timing and the issuer of instruction is historically incorrect, it is furthermore alleged by certain biblical scholars such as O’Connor that the census did not require the movement of people to the large towns.
Based upon the supposed census, Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in the place now called the Church of Nativity.
Apart from the nativity scene being unhistorical by all accounts, even the claim that Herod, the Jewish King but serving as the client of the Romans, demanded that all infants be killed, is not historically accurate at all.
In summary, all of the facts relating to Jesus’ birth are patently incorrect. Thus they can be discarded.
What was the demonised King Herod the Great like as a ruler? From a technocratic perspective, Herod is classified as being excellent. Under his watch the sea port of Caesarea was constructed. Excavations have revealed that the dwellings, layout and even the infrastructure conformed to the latest Roman techniques.
From a human rights perspective, however, he was on a par with the pitiless ruthless rulers of the era. Apparently he is reputed to have killed his wife and drowned a son.
Overall many rating him as a Ruler give him a high score.
Jesus’ home town was Nazareth. He shared his parent’s home with 5 brothers and one sister. It is now accepted that the family were not carpenters but stonemasons. The reason advanced for this error is that it was an error in translation. It is more plausible that they were stonemasons because all the buildings during that era were built of stone. Whatever occupation they had still means that they were part of the working class, not indigent but poor nonetheless.
It is speculated that Joseph and Jesus probably worked in near-by town Sepphoris due to the volume of building construction during this period mainly at the behest of Herod.
Was Jesus an Essene?
Even though I personally dispute Barbara Thiering’s linking of Jesus to the Essene Sect based at Qumran on the Dead Sea, one cannot discard it without due consideration. The proof that Thiering provides is questionable being based upon the fact that the operation of the site and Jesus’ life are contemporaneous. This is the self-same fictitious argument equating correlation with causation.
Nevertheless the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls by Bedouin Shepherds in 1945 created a media frenzy. Here was an opportunity to peer into the lives of the people alive during Jesus’ lifetime. What they did discover was a deeply pious end-of-the-days sect obsessed with ritual purity. To maintain that purity, they had to bathe in “living water”. To enable them to do so in a parched wilderness, they constructed huge tunnels through solid rock to channel the raging torrents of the seasonal water flow to their settlement.
Was Jesus an Essene? The one reason advanced for a negative answer is this sect manifested apocalyptic obsessions. This Jesus is never reported to have manifested. This is not to say that he definitely was not, but from the highly ritualistic modus operandi of the Essenes, it is not probable.
Jesus the Fisherman
The Gospels tell of Jesus at the age of 30 preaching to the fishermen at the Sea of Galilee. The message that he spread was one of peace. To his “congregants”, he was viewed as a healer and a prophet. With at least half of his disciples being fishermen, here is a person who related to the common man.
One of the reasons provided for Jesus’ concern for the fishermen was that in 24 AD a tax was imposed on fishing. This would have bankrupted most of the fishermen. At that time the air was heavy with talk of revolts and rebellion and Jesus was at the centre of it. Interestingly in 1986 a fishing boat from Jesus’ era was recovered from the Sea of Galilee. What it does confirm is that it was capable of carrying up to 15 people taking into account the smaller stature of the inhabitants during the era.
Jesus in Jerusalem
Jesus walked up to the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday where he entered the Great Temple. This Temple was later destroyed by the Romans during 70 AD. All that remains is the Western or Wailing Wall. This would be the last time that Jesus would enter the Temple but now intent on a singular action: the eviction of the purveyors of goods and the money changers. He declared that the temple was a house of prayer and not a den of iniquity. To show his resolve, Jesus upturned tables with their wares and money.
Upon due consideration, Jesus’ message was subversive, the voice of a revolutionary fighting for the poor. For this reason, the Jewish elders of the church arrested Jesus and handed him over to the Romans. The Romans had a sadistic method of dealing with trouble makers: crucify them as a form of public humiliation.
Today pilgrims wash a slab in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with rose water where Jesus’ body is supposed to have laid.
There the story of Jesus could have ended but it did not. To use a modern phrase, Christianity only got traction when Saul had his Damascus moment and became Paul.
A discovery in 1945 in Southern Egypt at Nag Hammadi was to cast doubts upon the received wisdom regarding the life and significance of Jesus. Not far from an extant monastery dating to the period of Jesus, some shepherds came across a jar buried in the sand. They contained the lost gospels on the life of Jesus known as the Gnostic Gospels.
These gospels were considered to be dangerous as they were written for a different kind of piety – knowledge and not faith. The Gospel of Thomas was the most incendiary as he cast doubts on the divinity of Jesus himself. Jesus, he claimed, performed no miracles, did not die on the cross, was not resurrected and was not the Son of God.
Can we dismiss the Gnostic Gospels summarily? Don’t they provide a different portrait of Jesus and Christianity from the one that is generally accepted?
The more that one searches for the real Jesus, the more that he appears to be an apparition and unknowable.
Will Jesus forever remain a perpetual mystery or will the true Jesus step forward?
Shrouded in the mists of time, this is unlikely.
The definitive Jesus will never emerge.