Instead of trying to find out what the truth is, the modern world seems content to allow everyone to have their own Jesus. So it was that in 2011 an America charismatic pastor named Wendell Smith organized a major media blitz on major billboards and buses to emphasize the ubiquitous nature of Jesus. The ‘Jesus is _________’ campaign was identified by its website as demonstrating to young people that:
Jesus is a lot of things, but the answer is in the Bible. It says that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to earth on a mission to restore mankind to God. By living a perfect life, dying on a cross, and coming back to life, His mission was a success. We can know God because of Jesus. So maybe the reality of who Jesus is remains too big for the blank.
Jesus apparently should be what ever you want him to be. It certainly was intended to reassure the youth of America that religion doesn’t have to be staid and rigid. Smith wants all of us apparently to be open to just about any new idea about Jesus.
Yet what is the truth about Jesus? Who or what was to the first people who believed in him? This is a far more difficult question as it is left in the hands of professional scholars. The person who makes his living from studying Jesus first has to begin by getting an idea of everything else that has been written on the subject. To this end, the question of who Jesus is inevitably gets bogged down into some other distraction - i.e. whether scholar X was correct in his interpretation of Y which happens to have some peripheral relationship to the question of who is Jesus.
Most books that have been written on the question of who is Jesus generally come from someone who has an ax to grind. Many uphold a particular theological point of view. Some as noted develop from overactive imaginations. While most books about Jesus is simply to assume that he was a human being like the rest of us – a man who happened to be born of a mother named Mary – there were many early witnesses who make it clear that this wasn't so.
One of the earliest Church Fathers tells us quite clearly that Jesus’s mother was not found in the original gospel narrative, while another witness casts doubt on the virgin birth. It was commonly reported that Christians outside the 'great Church' held that Jesus didn't even have a physical body. Some, strangely held the view that Jesus had a physical body and was born to Mary but nevertheless that he was fully divine. The ancient world was no different than today it seems. A great number of people disagreeing with each other over the question of who or what Jesus was.
In today's world the people who hold to the position that Jesus didn't exist or wasn't human are usually atheists. They want to 'debunk' Christian religion through proving that Jesus wasn't a historical figure. Yet it has to be noted that the exact opposite was true in antiquity. Those who believed that Jesus was God rather than human also denied that he 'existed' in the strictest sense of the term. After all, the Latin word is rooted in the concept of becoming, appearing and 'standing out' only to fade away. The concept of God by contrast is planted in eternal being.
Of course the idea that an eternal God could suddenly appearing beside us while we take a shower sounds utterly ridiculous. Nevertheless for the people of antiquity it wasn't so unbelievable. The Jewish writings that have survived from Qumran near the Dead Sea certainly make it clear that God was expected to visit mankind shortly. He was expected to walk and talk with people in the way he did formerly only with Moses on Mount Sinai.
That is why the question of 'Does Jesus Exist' is really kind of misleading. It boxes us into a very limited set of possibilities that prejudice our understanding of the ancient mind. The reality is that there are very few people who can actually be said to have seen Jesus. Indeed once you discount those who are little more than a recorded name - 'Philip,' 'Mary,' ' Joseph' - that number is down to single digits. It was well established in antiquity that none of the people who authored the surviving four gospels of our New Testament canon ever saw the historical Jesus.
So what was really going on in antiquity? It is usually assumed by principally Protestant scholars that Jesus was a real historical figure who only developed into a divine being through a process of ‘exaggeration’ essentially. Bart Ehrman puts forward this argument in his Did Jesus Exist? Nevertheless the exact opposite is found by actually examining the earliest evidence. The one or two individuals who actually 'saw' Jesus tapped into a massive Jewish expectation for a divine visitation. As the first gospel was written generations after the events in question, none of the converts to the new religion had any personal acquaintance with him or those promoting the new message.
Indeed it is simply not true that the first Christians who embraced the gospel did so because they believed he was a man of flesh and blood. This is simply a thoroughly modern conception. When we actually get to examining the evidence we will see that all groups began by assuming that Jesus was divine. The only controversy was over the question of whether he actually had a physical body.
If we were to ask what is the earliest, most reliable and most comprehensive witness to the faith of the earliest Christians, the answer would surprise most people. The source isn't even mentioned in Bart Ehrman's recent book. Sometime around the middle of the second century an otherwise unknown pagan writer named Celsus wrote a scathing study of Christianity which was called the 'True Account'. As Celsus himself notes he wasn't as much searching for the truth about Jesus rather than lampooning the controversies between Jews and Christians in the contemporary world over the question of the nature of God. As the author himself put it "the controversy between Jews and Christians is a most foolish one, differing in no respect from what is called in the proverb, 'a fight about the shadow of an ass.'"
In the ancient world, no less than today, receiving negative press proved that an individual or group had finally made it. By attacking Christianity Celsus was ultimately demonstrating to us that it was now a serious - even threatening - social phenomenon. He was keen to demonstrate to his audience of educated citizens in the Empire that Christians and Jews belonged to an inferior religious tradition. Nevertheless he didn't want to have his arguments dismissed as mere rhetoric, so he was keen to demonstrate that he was building upon solid facts reported by eyewitnesses from the earliest period of the religion. So it was that right at the beginning of his treatise, Celsus brings forward an even earlier anti-Christian treatise written by a Jew purportedly within a few years of Jesus’s death.
No one knows who this Jew was and what the name of his 'speech' or demegoria was. There are indications from the surviving fragments that it to was called 'the True Account.' In this way we should have something of a literary matroyshka doll unraveling in this one tradition. The original Jewish work represents a battle between Jews and Christians over the 'True Account' (= aletheias logos) of God. Celsus the pagan by his use of the same terminology is mocking the controversy and then finally - in the last layer of this onion, the Church Father Origen writing up to a hundred years later seeks to rescue the Judeo-Christian tradition from the critics scorn. All of our surviving references to the True Account tradition come from this Christian writer.
Of all the surviving writings of Christianity antiquity the True Account tradition is the only one which provides us with a clear and reliable understanding of what Christians actually believed in the first hundred to hundred and fifty years of its existence. Yet very few scholars quote extensively from the material because it only survives in a jumbled, fragmentary form essentially built around pages of critical commentary from Origen. In the Appendix of this work we have attempted to reconstruct the second demegoria of the anonymous writer directed at the first Jewish converts to Christianity which is quote extensively by Celsus in his work. The surviving text proves once and for all our point that Christianity began as a belief in Jesus as God and then only gradually developed the understanding of Jesus as a man in the latter half of the second century.
What exactly was a demegoria in antiquity? The word is closely related to the Greek demagogos from which we get the word demagogue. As such it was a public (and, by extension, demagogic) speech which was often used by an orator against his political enemies in ancient Greece. It is hard to know in what context this Jew developed this speech. While there is no direct evidence from the surviving works of Christianity antiquity about this particular work, it resembles very closely the Acts of Pilate tradition - a work purporting to be an explanation of sorts from the man who ultimately condemned Jesus to death.
The existence of this 'Acts of Pilate' is witnessed as early as the middle of the second century. There were also at least two basic forms of the original work - one which was used by pagans to prove that Christians were a reprehensible religious form and another which actually supported the miraculous nature of Jesus. Both forms of the Acts continued to be used by pagans and Christians alike. Indeed one of the last pagan emperors, Maximin II, shortly before the decree which officially recognized Christianity as a tolerated religious form, attempted to bring the faith into disrepute by publishing the pagan form of the 'Acts of Pilate', in order for its slander to be read and memorized by schoolchildren.
Celsus, writing from sometime after the middle of the second century, somehow came into contact with a similar work written by a Jewish author. We can see from the surviving fragments that he began his own treatise with a short introduction – demonstrating that the ‘true understanding’ of the universe is not to be found among the Jews or the Christians but rather the cultures which were around from the very beginning of the world – before bringing forward these two public speeches, the first an oral address condemning Jesus and the second his followers. His purpose once again was to reassure his readership that neither the Christians nor the Jews had a clue what the real truth was.
The reason that we are taking such an interest in the True Word written by the anonymous ‘Jew’ author of course is that it clearly and unmistakably witnesses that Christianity began as a religion which believed that Jesus was a God rather than a man. This is true even for converts from Judaism at the beginning of the second century when the Jewish treatise was written.
The anonymous Jewish author of the original True Account clearly had in his possession a more original form of the Gospel of Matthew which is known from the writings of later Patristic witnesses in the fourth century. The Jew for instance tells the audience that he saw the bird coming down on him being present in the baptismal waters:
When you, [Jesus], were bathing beside John, you say that what had the appearance of a bird from the air alighted upon you. What credible witness beheld this appearance? or who heard a voice from heaven declaring you to be the son of God? What proof is there of it, save your own assertion, and the statement of another of those individuals who have been punished along with you? This is your own testimony, unsupported save by one of those who were sharers of your punishment, whom you adduce.
When we compare these details to the gospel of a group called ‘the Ebionites’ in the writings of a fourth century Church Father we know at once we have an exact match.
At first glance of course, the fact that Jesus was portrayed as standing in water - seemingly one man beside another with a bird coming down on his head - it would seem only to prove that the presumed founder of Christianity was human. Yet the exact opposite emerges during the course of the Jew’s critique of the group and indeed the Church Father also acknowledges the very same thing in his report – “moreover, they deny that he was a man …” This is utterly remarkable and rarely gets the attention it deserves from scholars. Instead they typically cloud the waters of 'Jewish Christianity' in order to reinforce what they typically want the earliest Jewish converts to Christianity to have believed - i.e. a kind of proto-Protestantism.
There can be no doubt that the True Account provides us with the earliest and most reliable witness to what the first Jewish Christians believed. If we were to characterize the belief it would seem to resemble the Rastaman vibration that emerges from Bob Marley and the Wailers songs like 'Get Up Stand Up' - i.e. ‘Almighty God is a living man.' Nevertheless what makes this discovery so significant is that it destroys the last bastion of belief in a human Jesus associated with the four canonical gospels. Already the gospels of Mark, Luke and John were originally associated with groups that promoted a wholly divine Jesus. Now we see the same thing emerging with the original text behind Matthew.
The testimony from the early so-called 'Ebionite' community is that they used a gospel which was constantly having text added to it which eventually made it support the idea of a historical Jesus. Nevertheless the original narrative began with the words:
It came to pass in the days of Herod the king of Judaea, when Caiaphas was high priest, that there came one, John by name, and baptized with the baptism of repentance in the river Jordan. It was said of him that he was of the lineage of Aaron the priest, a son of Zacharias and Elisabeth: and all went out to him.
The narrative then immediately proceeded to tell of Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan:
When the people were baptized, Jesus also came and was baptized by John. And as he came up from the water, the heavens was opened and he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that descended and entered into him. And a voice sounded from Heaven that said: "You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased." And again: "I have this day begotten you". And immediately a great light shone round about the place. When John saw this, it is said, he said unto him : "Who are you, Lord?" And again a voice from Heaven rang out to him: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." And then, it is said, John fell down before him and said: "I beseech you, Lord, baptize me." But he prevented him and said: "Suffer it; for thus it is fitting that everything should be fulfilled."
It was this short original form which began with Jesus’s baptism by John which was ultimately expanded in many different ways – both subtle and explicit – which added familiar new and ultimately familiar themes (the Virgin Birth, the visit of the Magi, Herod’s killing of the firstborn etc). Yet surprisingly the Jew of Celsus questions the continued belief of Jewish Christians in a wholly divine Jesus in spite of the additions of various historical details.
What should be reinforced over and over again here is that in their earliest form Matthew, Mark and Luke especially looked remarkably similar and each were interpreted in the exact same way - i.e. that Jesus was a God rather than a man. While it is generally agreed by most scholars that the original form of the gospel was established by Mark, how we get to our present four gospel collection is an extraordinarily complicated business which we shall treat only superficially in this present work. This story has never been written nor will it likely ever be satisfactorily explained.
Nevertheless there are some very interesting things that we can take away even from a superficial discussion of the parallels between the gospels. It would be generally agreed that Mark for instance possesses the closest thing to the original account of the form of a bird coming from heaven. In that text we see that there was only one announcement from heaven, as opposed to the aforementioned Jewish text where there are two. Moreover the Gospel of Mark is entirely ambiguous as to what exactly John the Baptist 'took in' when the divine Epiphany occurred:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Did John the Baptist actually hear the heavenly witness? Did he see the form of the bird coming down from heaven? The Jewish Christian gospel goes out of its way to make clear that he did. But why did he do this? The Jew of Celsus makes it clear that he wanted not only to make John the prophet of the coming of the Son of God but moreover the first person to acknowledge that Jesus fulfilled that expectation. In the original gospel however John is portrayed as never fully coming over to the belief in Jesus Christ.
There are other some noticeable differences between the two versions of the narrative. But for the moment at least we only want to focus on the one critical underlying similarity - all early Christians believed that Jesus was God from the very beginning. This explains why the Jewish author of the True Account focuses entirely on disproving this core Christian belief as early as 120 CE. Indeed scholars have been so shocked by insults that the Jewish author dishes up during the course of his demegories that they often lose sight of his underlying purpose.
A case in point. The clearest sign that the treatise is an authentic Jewish work is author's introduction of the so-called Panthera legend – i.e. the story that Jesus father wasn’t Joseph but a Roman soldier named Panthera. This idea is a stock feature of later rabbinic and medieval texts including the infamous Toledoth Yeshu or ‘the generations of Jesus.’ This anonymous ancient text begins the author's accusing Jesus of having “invented his birth from a virgin” and of him of really:
being born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.
Of course this sounds very much like the Jewish author was 'hitting Jesus below the belt' as it were. But we can't lose sight of the fact that the people he was insulting didn't believe that Jesus was even a person. As such he isn't merely ‘raising doubts’ about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth but rather taking aim at what he saw as the inherent irrationality of the core belief of Christianity in the first hundred years of its existence – namely that God the Father was Jesus's only real parent.
So it is that when Bart Ehrman makes the case that the human Jesus came first and was only gradually replaced by this ‘make-believe’ divine hypostasis, a careful scrutiny of the evidence reveals the exact opposite. Jesus began as a God and only slowly developed human characteristics. To this end, the anonymous Jewish author of Celsus’s anti-Christian polemic deliberately chose a version of the gospel which began with the virgin birth narrative – again because it was so downright unbelievable. So it is that the Jew here goes on to make fun of Jesus being ‘Son of God’ through a lustful Father and a seductive human mother - “if the mother of Jesus was beautiful, then the god whose nature is not to love a corruptible body, had intercourse with her because she was beautiful.”
It is the same for every narrative in the gospel that he can get his hands on. He begins by asking what makes Jesus so special as the Son of God if all men are understood to be born according to the decree of Divine Providence. He argues that the story of wise men who follow a star to worship the newborn infant as a God never happened along with the mythical slaughter of the firstborn by Herod. He says the idea of the young Jesus being hurried away to Egypt is utterly implausible too – “was it to escape being murdered?” How should a divine being be afraid of death, asks the Jew. Why was he worried? Couldn’t God the Father keep you his only Son, there in safety?”
We have to remember that the original text was not merely some abstract paper on the shortcomings of the Christian religion. It was a public speech written against Jesus which was followed by another attack against the converts from Judaism. He asks one question over and over again – what convinced you that this was man was ever a god? The unrelenting assault continues in the second demegoria directed at the Christians themselves which we have presented in the closest thing to its original form at the end of this book. Eventually our Jew settles on the idea that the Christian interest in a divine Jesus developed as a kind of pollution from contact with Greco-Roman paganism. The real Jesus of history was a goetes - a lowly magician who frequented the marketplaces of the Roman Empire as a kind of 'holy man' for hire for the poorest classes.
With this last comment Origen the anonymous Jew’s address to Jesus ends and it - when taken together with the second demegoria highlights one of the weakest parts of Bart Ehrman’s recent book – his complete inability to cite one independent testimony from the early period which actually proves that Jesus was a human being. Of course there certainly are Christian texts which purport to be witnesses from the same period as this Jewish author cited by Celsus. Nevertheless these writings simply have not come down to us in a pure form.
In the chapter called ‘Evidence for Jesus Outside the Gospels’ Ehrman brings forward a number of early witnesses which he claims support the idea that Jesus was a human being. He cites Ignatius of Antioch (a man whose name literally means ‘angel’ in his native Syrian tongue) and fails to mention that these letters survive in three different lengths, the shortest and most original not making reference to any of the claims regarding a human Jesus. He also references the first letter of Clement of Rome not mentioning that this epistle was preserved in Alexandria in a completely different form than what we have inherited from Roman sources – the witnesses to Jesus’s humanity being only present in the later, adulterated version.
The place that we inevitably end up with respect to a historical understanding of Christianity in its earliest period is that it began as a religion developed around a divine visitation near the beginning of the Common Era. In other words, just as the Jews of the period leading up to 26 CE were expecting God to come down and visit his people, the first Christians believed that he actually did. They were ‘spiritual descendants’ as it were of a group of twelve who witnessed the presence of God come down in the form of a human being.
There were of course arguments within the broader family of Christian believers. Some argued that the Son of God simply floated down from heaven while others – like the sect criticized by the Jewish testimony preserved in Celsus’s treatise – said he manifested himself by means of a virgin birth. Nevertheless as much as it might defy our modern sensibilities there simply is no getting around the fact that our earliest testimonies – the ones presented here and utterly ignored by Ehrman in his recent book – makes it perfectly clear that the first Christians all agreed that Jesus was a god and then haggled over the details. It was only as a result of Celsus’s re-introduction of that Jewish text in a new, even more devastating critique of the religion some thirty to fifty years later that Christian leaders took it upon themselves to ‘reform’ their religion and emphasize the historicity of Jesus.
Of course it is not the job of the historian to make the unfolding of events agree with our existing presuppositions about them. The modern scholar only resorts to this approach when he has a distracting agenda and becomes something of a polemicist for a cause or social movement. The reality is that we cannot simply will the existence of a historical Jesus merely because the idea conforms with what we want the truth to be. We will never likely know the whole truth about anything that existed almost two thousand years ago. Many of us have a problem with balancing our checkbooks and the unfolding of history in 'real time' let alone the ancient past. Nevertheless we shall indeed present a compelling explanation for the origin of the mythical Jesus in our next chapter - even if this understanding ultimately manifests itself indirectly, as the moon reflects the cosmic light of the sun.