A good religion – and any good philosophy for that matter – stands the test of scrutiny from every angle. Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable for me to question the faith of Christianity, and especially the claims of Christ, in light of every new piece of evidence I find. Today, I’d like to focus specifically on the claims of Jesus of Nazareth in light of his society.
To a large extent – as with everyone – much of my “knowledge” has been passed onto me from other people. For instance, I believe camels can walk across the desert by storing water in their humps, not because I have ever performed an autopsy on a camel nor have I seen them drink a great deal of water and traveled with them through a desert. Nevertheless, even some ideas that are “common knowledge” may be shown as unreliable (“false”) in the years to come, or they may fall out of popularity in favor of some other idea. Still, we don’t have time in our lives to go examining every single fact for ourselves, so – for better or for worse – we end up relying on information from someone else.
That said, it is possible to find logical contradictions within lies if we understand exactly what they are trying to tell us. Therefore, while we may not be able to prove many truths about our world from the comfort of our chair, it is easier to argue certain ideas seem unlikely or unreasonable with significantly less evidence to work with.
I grew up with a number of ideas about Jesus Christ. Jesus was often depicted as a radical, going alone, correcting the establishment, and healing the people. He was out of the ordinary, and that made him special. I had never really examined Jesus from within his own culture to see just how special he was, nor had I considered Jesus as if he were just a mad man. If he was a mad man, does that change the truths about our world? It changes Christianity for sure, but perhaps it makes no difference in the grand scheme of things.
With that in mind, let us contemplate on the validity of Christianity by performing an analysis of Jesus of Nazareth within his own historical context.
First, let us presume the existence of a God that chose to create the universe. This assumption does greatly effect the outcome, no doubt, but in my mind, the existence of “God” and His/Its act of “free will” to create the universe can be argued apart from the belief system of Christianity. Jews, Muslims, and a number of other religions have a “god”, so clearly, it isn’t a unique thing. However, I would conjecture that the “God” of the universe – especially the primitive view as considered by the Greeks (the “Monad”) – can be viewed in a very simplistic way in regards to His/Its essential elements (even though these are still a mystery). God exists. If God has a “personality” or attitudes or a character of some sort, then it is something that either God has revealed to humanity or the very idea of it (that is, of God having a personality) is an invention of man.
Jesus of Nazareth has specific ideas about God that have now been passed on throughout the centuries and interpreted and reinterpreted by many people. Whether the correct ideas about God have emerged or been destroyed depends on a number of factors, including:
- Whether the ideas were correct to begin with
- Whether God was the reason for people having those ideas
If the ideas were wrong, then God is allowing them to perpetuate for reasons of His own, and we can only speculate as to what those reasons are. Clearly, God has allowed a number of religions and belief systems around the world. This could mean God is apathetic, or universalism is true, or perhaps God has showed favoritism to some, or perhaps God has simply let people be fools. The speculation can continue and thus this isn’t a fact that means much here.
If God is the reason people have a particular idea, then it is possible that God will protect and preserve it throughout all time, regardless of the pollution of man. While it is true that the truths of Christianity have been “clarified” over the course of several centuries, one can only speculate at how the beliefs may have differed from earlier interpretations of the faith, or if God even cared. Perhaps God wanted people to discover facts about Him on their own. Or perhaps He simply left them with a deposit of truth and expects them to dig into it and understand it more fully. After all, He gave us good brains. I do prescribe to this theory, by the way.
Since the history books may have changed or been skewed or the evolution of language may have made it impossible to retrace the original ideas, we cannot rely on historical manuscripts as a reliable, rational guide, at least not from the perspective of our armchairs. I’m told several scholars dig through the books to prove to themselves that there are numerous sources in support of the constancy of the Christian faith. I’m not one of them. And even if I was, I wouldn’t expect my fellow readers to believe me on my word alone. Therefore, some other evidence is necessary.
One source of evidence is the beauty of the Christian faith when fully practiced. A few rare individuals in every century will actually succeed to a large extent in doing this. Most will not. Those who do fully act “Christian” will be kind, meek, humble, gentle, compassionate, charitable, and honest, even though it seems to be very detrimental to them. And yet, there are claims that they are relatively pleased with where they are at in life. (Notably, this depends on who we ask and who we consider as fully acting out the Christian faith.) In practice, these aforementioned moral values taught by Christianity work beautifully in society as evidenced by the fact that they were discovered separately by other people, including Buddha, resulting in the creation of a very polite and friendly society in Japan (at least in regards to the Japanese acting towards each other since such moral values are not necessarily extended to neighbors).
Notably, however, it seems the moral principles taught by Jesus of Nazareth do not appear to be very original, which leaves some room for questioning his identity. During the time of Jesus of Nazareth, there were a number of religious sects or groups, most notably the Sadducees and the Pharisees, both of whom are mentioned in Scripture. While I can’t definitely say that Jesus of Nazareth was a Pharisee, let’s consider the perspective of the Jewish priests at the time.
The ancient world was lively and active. People weren’t simply sitting around, waiting for a great speaker to come along and lead them. They had busy lives, but they were nevertheless actively pursuing religious endeavors as well. The New Testament mentions “synagogue” on several occasions. Synagogues were central places of gathering for Jews to exercise their religion in public through worship, prayer, and instruction. They were busy places, and as one could expect from humans, they were probably places where people shared many ideas and did a ton of debating on those ideas.
Jesus of Nazareth is said to have taught in many synagogues. Undoubtedly, he probably met and knew alot of people from there It’s possible that Jesus knew Jairus before healing the latter’s daughter. On one occasion at a synagogue, it is Jesus’ turn to read from the scriptures. This fact sounds rather odd when you don’t know about the social customs of the time. Did everyone in society get to read from the Torah and the prophets? Zechariah – father of John the Baptist – had his turn to serve God, but he was a priest, part of an order established for performing a particular set of duties in society. It’s likely that Jesus of Nazareth was also part of the order of teachers. He was often called “rabbi”, which implies a social status and – given when and where it is used – it was likely given to him prior to his venturing off to start his own cult. It would make sense if Jesus had been a member of the Pharisees, whose doctrines he is often said to share. On the one hand, this suggests Jesus’ training was nothing radical or unusual, and therefore, the humanity of Jesus seems quite evident. From a Christian perspective, we could point out that God worked with the existing order (a fact that very, very much makes sense when considering the character of God derived from God as universal Order) to reform society rather than rebelling against it in some radical way that would only attract the most daring of delinquents.
It is often forgotten that ancient people weren’t stupid sheep. They were no different than you and me. If someone randomly decided to show up and start telling people to follow him, most people would ignore the quack and go on their merry way. A few would look for a moment and then ignore them. I recall seeing some bold individual standing downtown a city I was visiting. He were reading scripture out loud, but no one was standing near, listening. Therefore, by the time Jesus begins his “public ministry”, it is likely that he has already been ministering for quite some time, and that the “beginning” written in the Gospel Letters is actually when he finally decides to gather a following (accepting and collecting disciples) and starting teaching doctrines that are specifically his own (as opposed to those commonly taught at the time). This would also explain why, in the Four Gospel Letters, the accounts of the callings of the first disciples often describe people stopping everything they were doing and leaving it all just to follow Jesus; they already knew him and were probably interested in following him a long time ago. Now Jesus was saying, “Let’s do this”, and they were thinking, “Awesome! Let’s do this”.
At the young age of 12, Jesus of Nazareth was interested in religion and seemed to have a natural talent for getting people’s interest. The descriptions of him in the Four Gospel Letters suggest he was a skilled orator and an excellent debater. A number of his words seem to be excluded and are sometimes replaced with remarks about how they were “gracious” or eloquent or so wise that people were afraid to talk to him. They say he spoke as one with authority, unlike their teachers of the law (Mt 7:29, Mk 1:22). Obviously, he was impressive. But was he just a good orator and debater?
The debates between Jesus and the other religious (the Sadducees and Pharisees primarily) may have been nothing particularly unusual much less outstanding in ancient Palestine. Other teachers and sages had probably argued and looked impressive to the people. What makes Jesus’ debates more remarkable is in his very keen insight into the mentality of people. While the Gospel Letters writers often speak as if he read the minds of his interlocutors, the Gospel writers could not read minds, so their statements are either speculation at best or speak from a personal wisdom regarding their own human nature – information that we can figure Jesus also had access to, considering that he was raised in that nation. There’s the possibility that Jesus told his disciples what the interlocutors were thinking. This seems sketchy because there is no way to confirm the information unless the disciples asked the interlocutors themselves, which is entirely possible considering that a number of those opposed to Jesus later converted. We can also recall the conversion of Nathanael (Jn 1:43-49), noting here Jesus’ ability to “see” places where his physical body did not exist. It is possible that the story is contrived, but in any case, Jesus’ effect on people was enough to convince them to dedicate their lives to him and write these things, true or not. (Given the natural skepticism of people, I would like to think it’s the truth that convinced people, but people have been known to lie and invent all kinds of stuff to support their beliefs.)
The keen insights of Jesus into people made him scary. He could manipulate the people and lead them astray. The educated people of society, especially the leaders, couldn’t have this. To them, Jesus was making a power play, and they either had to stop him or face the reality that they might lose their esteemed status in the hearts of the people. Pontius Pilate was well aware of the social climate and events at the time (after all, he was the governor and would likely have wanted to keep his ear to the ground), so it is said that he knew the Chief Priests had handed Christ over out of envy (Mt 27:18). This fact may have likely been revealed by Pilate himself, whom I’ve read eventually became a Christian.
Perhaps the greatest trouble with Jesus is his sanity. Could he be trusted? At his trial before the Sanhedrin, the priests hesitate to condemn him over the numerous false testimonies. They could have picked one, but something held them back. Considering myself in their shoes, it is possible that they looked at Jesus and had a faint and dying hope that the man they thought they once knew – the great orator, teacher, Pharisee – would reappear, denounce the false accusations, and clear away any signs of lunacy. Instead, he does the exact opposite – by saying he would be seated at the right hand of power and come on clouds of heaven (Mt 26:64). This blasphemy was not an accident. Jesus knew what they would do based on what he said. He didn’t correct them or restore his image. He left them with only two options:
Either Jesus was who he claimed to be (as insane as it was) or he was a lunatic. Even if his people had considered him a great moral teacher before, he wasn’t going to leave them with that image of himself.
There are plenty of analyses to be performed if we assume Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we can have fun with those later. For now, however, we’re still looking at Jesus as just a human.
So far, we can say Jesus is one of many teachers, a popular guy, a great orator, and a with all the right rumors being circled about him, even if he isn’t handsome. Is it possible, though, that he has gone insane?
Three of the Four Gospel Letters say Jesus went out into the desert (Mt 4, Mk 1:12, Lk 4). During this time, it is said Jesus was tempted. Where did this story come from if not Jesus himself? It speaks of Jesus in third person, but how could anyone else know about what happened? It’s not like your average human can see the Devil. If the story comes from Jesus, then there is an pressing possibility that it may have been invented. Jesus tends to be very secretive about a number of things, including his miraculous transfiguration (Mk 9:9) (though notably, the author doesn’t seem worried that including this remark of Jesus might discredit Jesus). Interestingly enough, whether or not these are authentic does little to hamper their actual message: all of the refusals of temptation promote Jesus’ message of unselfishness, so if anything, their authenticity merely speaks about the honesty of the writers of the Gospel Letters and not Jesus himself, who may have told the tales as parables that were later misinterpreted as real scenarios. If Jesus did enter the desert, it is possible that he spent quite some time there formulating his plan for how to speak to the people, and perhaps his complete sanity had already been lost some time ago.
The witness testimonies surrounding the life of Jesus are better evidence for the identity of Jesus than his teaching. After his baptism, it is said that “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3: 22). What exactly does this verse mean? What is “bodily form” for the Holy Spirit? What does this “dove” look like? This passage, along with the numerous testimonies about Jesus healing many people, are all evidence in favor of Jesus being very significant in a spiritual way. These things could have all been fabricated, but what isn’t fabricated is the fact that he had a large enough following for it to be worth while to have him killed. People were seeing something, and they liked it. And they were ordinary people like you and me, so there must have been at least something of interest.
There were a number of false messiahs in the time of Jesus of Nazareth, or so I’ve read. They had their popularity and then their followers petered out after their leader died. It is possible that the disciples of Jesus skewed the truth to make their teacher look good. Even still, people may have caught onto the gag. It is possible that the society Jesus entered was vulnerable to manipulation, especially since it was at a time (under Rome rule) that was craving for a savior of some sort. While ordinary people were not Zealots (who wanted to start an uprising against Rome), like all humans, they had their craving for some kind of freedom and meaning in life.
From the Blood of Followers
What is more convincing (to me) about Christianity is how many people – whether they knew him closely or not – chose to die for the sake of Jesus Christ. Rather than dump the faith, which seemed like an obvious choice for a dead cult, they persisted vigorously to make it work. They managed to figure out how the Torah and the books of the prophets lined up with what Jesus said and did. While it may be possible that they invented a hoax, it was one that would take a serious amount of work to get right. Considering how unlikely it would have been for humans to succeed at such an incredible endeavor, I’m inclined to think these men really were being as honest as they could be. How is this an incredible endeavor? For ancient people who didn’t have alot of paper (a very necessary resource at the time for devising plans unless you have a really awesome memory), much less internet search engines and records of hoaxes that worked, in their otherwise busy lives, the disciples of Jesus managed to create a very popular counter-cultural movement (one that treated women as equals (unthinkable in that era), accepted Gentiles (huh?), and even proclaimed the old temple – the center of Jewish religion – “obsolete” (WHAT???!)) in a culture whose awareness of the Scriptures could have argued them into oblivion had they been even slightly wrong. Today, that would be like joining the Flat-Earth Society. In the end, most of the disciples managed to get themselves killed. If the whole thing were a hoax, then the one thing we are missing is the motive for it. What could be so valuable about this hoax that would make it worth inventing and dying for it in the first place?
One could argue that the death was merely an outcome of being counter-cultural, but this suggests the disciples were ignorant of the consequences of these very radical beliefs, which I doubt was the case. In a number of places in the New Testament, they described themselves as huddling together in fear. Plotting and scheming maybe? History seems to show most religious outcasts escape to countries and places of more “fertile ground” (where converts are easier) or safer (like the Pilgrims), not preach from their terraces. Persecution eventually forced Christians to scatter (as you would expect), but a number of people stuck around Jerusalem for whatever stupid reason.
Perhaps the early Christians were racist – a distinct possibility. This changes when the apostle Paul convinces the leaders of the church that Gentiles can be followers too. The game plan shifts to converting people of other countries. Paul is made out to be a backstabbing fink who betrays Judaism for Christianity, thereby making Christianity more popular, especially if Paul was an outspoken individual. The removal of racism and sexism would have made Christianity more popular to gentiles and women, thereby increasing discipleship. Still… all this sounds incredibly crafty for a bunch of nobodies with a motive lost in history.
One could say that “influence” or “power” was the motive. After all, Christian influence is incredible. But for what point and purpose? Furthermore, these things are more accidental aftermath since Christianity, in its core essentials, teaches people to not seek power and influence at all but to be humble. These ideas are very, very counter-intuitive. These teachings, along with the teachings of anti-sexism and brotherhood/sisterhood of all people, have reasoning behind them indelibly embedded in the teachings of the New Testament and can be relatively easily derived if correctly interpreted (at least, it’s not too hard for me) (even though, yes, people have mistranslated the New Testament for the sake of supporting slavery, among other nonsense).
What if it’s a Hoax?
For the sake of completeness, let’s say it is a hoax. What then?
I’m inclined to believe that – outside of scholarly work – the only real evidence of the truth of Christianity is experiential. What does authentic Christianity do in your life? I doubt most people have ever experienced it. I know I haven’t. I’ve seen parts of it exercised, but not fully. I know that it works, however, and not simply from a theoretical perspective. The reality is, things in my life make much more sense and are significantly improving thanks to Christian morals and teachings, and my view of the universe itself is more complete.
Let us assume that only Christian morals are universally true and the best for the world and ignore the question over the validity of the teachings. Though some philosophies such as Buddhism contain these truths, there is no other religion (at least, not an original one) with a completely identical set of morals. The morals themselves would need to be attributed to either Judaism or simply the sect of Pharisees. Perhaps another messiah was supposed to come and Jesus was stealing the show. In any case, if the truth was from God, then it would be perplexing for God to allow a myth like Christianity to drown out his truth and become one of the most popular religions in the world.
On top of that, Judaism is a dead religion. That’s not to say that it isn’t practiced, but when you consider both it’s static practices (expanded on later in this paragraph) and it’s lack of global influence, it appears that it simply isn’t a contender – hardly something I think God would want if He wanted His truth to spread. Judaism has no temple. Instead, it seems as if God Himself placed a mosque on the temple grounds just so that the temple could not be built again. Without a temple, the Jewish life seems to be relatively meaningless. Not only can the law not fully justify them, but they have no way of making reparation for sin with burnt sacrifices. Not that this makes much difference – it would be bizarre for a God to continuously demand sacrifices for this long without any final, universal meaning to it. The death of Jesus brings Judaism to a pinnacle point by fulfilling everything foreshadowing the Christ.
If Judaism isn’t true, then I would expect some other religion that isn’t a copy-cat to contain the same Christian moral principles and be just as resilient. However, of the major world religions, nothing else seems to match. If some tiny religion contains all the truth, then God seems to be playing favorites or the rest of us are simply out of luck.
Considering Jesus within the historic framework he occupied reveals a very human image of Jesus. It should be no surprise then why the first serious heresy about Christ was Arianism. Jesus left behind a very human legacy, one that leaves room to question his sanity but contrasts it with his great intelligence. He was a man. He probably laughed and joked around, sang songs, prayed prayers, and negotiated prices like any other man of his day. And that was how he was seen.
Had I lived at the time of Jesus, I probably wouldn’t be a follower of his unless I too had experienced a miracle, as is the way it should be.
My analysis was far from incomplete. I could have spent more time on counter-arguments as well as the bunny trails, but that wasn’t the purpose of this analysis. I wanted to apply some genuine skepticism to these beliefs I’ve held for so long. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to expand on these ideas and come up with both arguments and counter-arguments.