Jesus was certainly a great hero and lovable beyond compare. He brought a message of peace and love that deeply resonated with people. He healed the sick and consoled the broken hearted. He rested the weary and filled their hearts with the hope that their troubles and sorrows would be recompensed with immeasurable joy. People were starved for a message like that. Furthermore, he was credible and compelling. Why else would people break through a roof merely to reach him? Why would thousands throng him along the shore so densely that he boarded a boat in order to address the crowd? Why did people spread their cloaks and palm leaves over the road to Jerusalem when he approached? The answer clearly is that he inspired them to their cores. He was their hero. These are the facts,… probably.
Now when a hero dies, especially as a martyr, the hero quickly becomes a legend. The stories grow and the fervent admiration of those who loved him turns to exaggeration and even fanaticism. Often people with hidden motives manipulate the movement in order to effect their own desires. This couldn’t possibly have happened with the Jesus movement, right? Most Christian religions teach that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born by a virgin mother, and rose from the grave. Jesus could: command legions of angels (lest he dash his foot against a stone), exorcise legions of devils (into pigs), predict the future, converse with God and devils, fast 40 days, turn water into wine, feed 5000 people with two fishes and five loaves, raise the dead, calm the sea, and walk on water. None of this is the stuff of myths and legends, right? Some of these are a little harder to accept than the image of Jesus as a healer-sage.
The Jesus tradition initially passed through an oral period. Most people in Jesus’ society would have been illiterate. They therefore relied on transmitting their stories and sayings orally. The first written records emerged several decades after Jesus’ death. They were not narrative in form but rather loose collections of sayings, all of which have since been lost. The first narrative records emerged after most people who knew Jesus personally were dead. Furthermore, the narratives grew more elaborate and fantastic with passing time. We see this phenomenon frequently in storytelling. For instance, in Mark (the oldest narrative gospel) there is no mention of a virgin birth, a new star hovering over Jesus’ birthplace, or of Jesus appearing after his resurrection. These and many other narrative elements were added later. The consequence of all this is that most of what Jesus was quoted as having said or did, he did not say or do. The reason that miracles do not seem to occur in modern times as they supposedly did in ancient times is that we have written records to keep us honest with ourselves.
Even small embellishments in a story lead to massive exaggerations over time. Suppose that by retelling a story, someone exaggerates it by 1%. It only requires 231 repetitions before it reaches a magnitude of ten times the truth. That is not hard to achieve in cultures where news spreads from town to town and from parent to child by word of mouth. If persons especially prone to exaggerate retell a story, it could reach that level much sooner. We generally acknowledge the stories of Hercules and King Arthur to be myths. They both share similarities to Jesus. Hercules was the son of Zeus by a mortal woman. He could command the waters to be still and raise the dead by wrestling Death. With King Arthur we have the epic good, a pure man who unified his people, established a holy order of knights, taught equality, and was betrayed by a trusted friend of the round table.
Since orally transmitted stories tend to the fantastic, especially when involving heroic figures, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus was actually a man, fraught with weakness and frailty as all men are. Does this possibility diminish our appreciation? Not mine! I actually love the more realistic version of Jesus. Here is a man who taught others to turn the cheek and actually did it himself when he was beaten and nailed to a cross. He was the incarnation of peace. He forgave his abusers and captured the heart of the world.
Author of JACK
Here is the link to Jesus Was Not A Christian (part 1).
Here is the link to Jesus Was Not A Christian (part 3).
I am happy to credit The Jesus Seminar for much of the scholarship that these essays are based on.