The empty tomb is a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to many Christians, proof of Christian beliefs. Could the story of Jesus Christ be as empty as the tomb? The following is a look at the unacknowledged dual narratives contained in the gospels.

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This guest article is from frequent commenter BensNewLogin. 

CS Lewis is famously quoted as saying that the Gospels must be true, because the only alternatives for understanding them are that Jesus is “liar, madman, or king.” That was CS Lewis for you, and why my extensive reading of him as a young man very nearly prompted me to become a Christian. He was a compelling rhetorician, but his rhetoric rested on a bedrock of poor argumentation, logical fallacies, and willful blindness. At least three other options present themselves: 1) legend, like all of the other gods of men; 2) an amalgamation of several real and legendary characters, like all of the rest of the solar myths; or 3) as Barbara Thiering posited, a business model

This last possibility I will explore in greater depth later. But for now: functionally, from the point of view of sociology, religion is a business, whatever its spiritual claims might be. Money comes in, money goes out, a product is sold. There’s no reason to think that religion wasn’t as much a business 2000 years ago as it is now. In fact, we have evidence for that: the Roman snake god, Glycon, was manufactured out of whole cloth, none of it spiritual. And there is no reason to think that business model was not the reason for Paul’s conflict with the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem. Who needs competition?

There was a time when I was intensely interested in these questions of who Jesus was and what actually happened 2000 years ago. I read a lot of books then, but I’m not so interested in it anymore. I would never describe myself as a biblical scholar, though I would say I am a sociologist and psychologist—of a sort. And that is my take on this: sociologist, psychologist, and a bit of a historian. Jesus allegedly said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” I suspect this is a later interpolation. It’s possible, though unlikely, that he did intend to start a new religion. But probably not, because he was a Jew. Paul was also a Jew, but apparently a Hellenized Jew. And there is no doubt that Paul did intend to start a new religion—more on that later.

Was Jesus a Real, Historical Personage?

I suspect that Jesus actually existed, though it is also as likely that he was an amalgamation of several characters running around at the time. (cf: Judas the Galilean). Outside of Christian documents, there is no other evidence, especially contemporary evidence, that he existed. I also think that the whole story is right there in the Gospels, the truth hiding out in plain sight of everyone, requiring just a little perspicacity to separate the historical wheat from the theological chaff.

Christianity was a first century Jewish heresy. That issue is independent of whether Jesus was real. The heresy was that Yahweh/Adonai, who is one, could have a literal son. Well, that’s where the heresy started. In the power struggle between the heretics (Christians) and the true believers and possessors of the truth (Jews), the Jews lost, and thus began the 1900 years of church-sanctioned antisemitism, beginning in the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts, and right down to the present era. Jesus was in conflict with the religious authorities of his time, just like Paul was with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. 

Was he real? I think probably likely, but ironically enough, for historical reasons despite the lack of actual history. Were the stories about him true? Very unlikely, not only because magic is highly unlikely, but because that would mean all of the rest of the magical stories about the various gods of men might also be true. His story was constructed along the same lines as all of the other god stories, because that is how people constructed their gods in those days. There are a lot of stories about a lot of magical, god-like people from a lot of religions over the ages. You’d be surprised how many man-gods died, often through a form of crucifixion, and were resurrected, and will come again to redeem mankind. Odin sacrificed himself to himself by hanging himself on a tree. If you are familiar with medieval Christmas carols, the cross is often referred to as a tree. The solar myth, the Dying God, the resurrected God, the crucified God are oft-repeated motifs in the worlds of the gods of men. You have Jesus, Lono, Odin, Adonis, Quetzalcoatl, Inanna, and Persephone. There are a bunch of them.

My issues with the gospels, especially the birth narratives, go in a different direction. I suppose you could summarize them in the immortal words of eminent scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins, who referred to the gospel narratives as “near eyewitness accounts.” That is a loophole that you could drive a very large body of scholarship through, with enough room left over to accommodate St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Was he the son of God? As an atheist, I would have to say not. Who was he? Just what the Bible said he was until the magic mumbo-jumbo men got hold of it, added a bunch of magic, myths, and miracles, and grew wealthy. 

From everything I have read, there is sufficient internal evidence in the gospels themselves to date them after the letters of Paul, even though they are placed in the New Testament before Paul’s letters, and for an obvious polemical reason. “Here’s the story, and this is what Paul did with it.” That is how people think of history: linear in time. And the assumption of Christians is that the New Testament is in fact history, not fable. The history had to come before the faith or the message on which it was built.

Paul’s letters especially warn in several places, both explicitly and implicitly, of forgeries in Paul’s name. That proves that at least one letter of Paul’s was a forgery. So why not more, if not all of them? I’m not the first to note that Paul seemed completely unaware of the miraculous birth, the Virgin Mary, and the choirs of angels, which is another reason to place the composition of the Gospels after the letters of Paul—40 to 70 years after the events they described. Nor would it be unreasonable to assume that the gospels had the same problems. Who among those who wrote them were actual, not “near,” eyewitnesses? Also, If the writers of the Gospels were eyewitnesses to the events recorded, they would have had to have been nearly adults when they occurred. To say that they were writing about these events 60 or 70 years later also strains credibility, since life expectancy was half what it is now. So, more and more, it is not impossible, just all very unlikely.

Moreover, one could choose to place the gospels’ composition before the destruction of the Temple by claiming they are “prophecies,” to more than 150 years after the events that they describe, because most prophecies work that way. They very accurately predict the past. It’s just simpler and less open to contradiction by putting the gospels before the letters of Paul.

I doubt that these issues will ever be resolved, unless there are new source documents that can be accurately dated, which seems highly unlikely to me. The P52 fragment, cited as “proof” of the eye-witnessing of the gospels, for example, really doesn’t say very much about anything. Even saying that is a fragment of the gospel of John is highly questionable, given that it could merely be quoting a small portion of that gospel, rather than being a fragment of the actual gospel itself. We simply don’t know, and we may never know. That’s why weighing improbabilities is important.

Sherlock Holmes vs. The Historical Jesus: It’s Elementary!

My questions about the gospels as historical documents go in a much different direction. Sherlock Holmes actually delineated the real questions to me: he said he could believe the impossible, because there are things we don’t know, but the improbable was much harder to account for, because of all the things we do know. He also said (I’m paraphrasing) that once you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, is most likely the truth. These are not necessarily contradictions, because a third proposition can be derived from them: once you begin to admit that the improbable is true, you open the door for the impossible to be commonplace. And vice versa. And this is why the Gospels so often impugn themselves. 

The improbability of what the birth narratives imply is what creates the biggest questions for me, far more than the likely impossibility of the events they describe: that is to say, not the miracles themselves, but the unlikelihood of the aftermath of the unfolding events. We are told that an angel appeared to shepherds in the fields to announce the birth of Jesus. Why to shepherds, and not king Herod or governor Quirinius? That would have gotten God’s message out. Why in a backwater like Nazareth, when Rome, or even Jerusalem, wasn’t all that far away? The same questions arise about the miracle of Fatima in 1917: why did the Virgin Mary appear to ignorant peasant children, when Lisbon with its universities and learning wasn’t a great distance. Shepherds are nobodies, but using them does play into the apocalyptic climate of the time: the last shall be first, the mighty shall be laid low, the hungry shall be fed and the rich sent away, and so on. This is from the text of the Magnificat, Mary’s poetical thanks-be-to-God. It does exactly the same thing, and probably for the same reasons. The lowly shall be made great, just like Jesus was born in a manger and is the king of heaven. Follow us, and you’ll get both your reward and your revenge. 

The choirs of angels announced the birth of Emanuel, “God with us.” Choirs of angels, visiting Wisemen from the east, who saw “his star in the east.” His star. This is a clear astrological reference, as astrology passed for science frequently in those days. This in itself indicates magic being a part of all of this. “We have seen his star in the East.” So why did they travel West? Magic! And why are they paying homage to Jesus? They don’t appear to be Jews, and they certainly can’t be Christians.

But here is where Sherlock Holmes comes in. Jesus is born with choirs of angels declaring that he is “God with us.” And then, apart from a mention of Jesus preaching in the temple, Jesus disappears for 30 years. This is what I find improbable. How could such a great miracle, complete with angels and heavenly choirs, be suddenly forgotten, and never mentioned again? Not one person is quoted as saying, “Isn’t that Joseph and Mary’s son, the one that was announced by choirs of angels claiming that he was God with us?” To me, it absolutely strains credibility, that in a time like this one it would be completely forgotten. And outside of the various gospels, the whole miraculous event went completely unnoticed by anyone, including Jewish historians. 

But again, the gospels once again give us the clue that it’s all made up. In Mark, we learn that Jesus’s family thought that he was crazy and wanted to put him away. And on what planet does that make sense, given that Mary was told that she would be bearing the son of God, and Joseph, who “was minded to put her away privily,” was told not to do that because this was a miracle of a birth. It’s highly improbable that his entire family, and everyone who knew any of them, forgot all about the choirs of angels and everything else associated with him. Why this would even be included in the gospels makes no sense, as it undermines the whole story. 

It makes sense only if the Gospels, like the theology of Paul, are actually two stories being told simultaneously. The Dead Sea Scrolls imply that this was common practice: one story for the masses, and the pesher, or secret meaning, for the elect. I contend the family reaction to Jesus is most likely a part of the actual historical narrative, and not part of the magic and myths and miracles that were added on later. 

Even assuming the truth of the Christian story, that Jesus was the son of God, none of this was ever mentioned again, and if I am remembering properly, Matthew’s Gospel didn’t mention it at all. And of course, neither did Paul. In Romans, he seems to be saying that God and Jesus are separate people. It seems likely to me that these were all later embellishments, added in a time when belief in magic and miracles were commonplace. And it was intended to add credibility for the uneducated. The Orange Messiah loves his uneducated people, ya know. Why not the original Messiah?

So who was the historical Jesus?

Stripping the magic and miracles from the story of Jesus, without necessarily touching the religious aspects of it—though they may well be exactly the same thing—I think that the actual story of Jesus can be found in the Gospel narratives. Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph, both of whom were descended from David. On his mother’s side, he was a priest. On his father’s side, he was a king. Mary, actually Maryam, the priestess-sister of Moses, was a generic name for a priestess in those days. That’s why there are so many of them in the NT story. Mary of Magdala was another priestess, always portrayed in red, whence we get the term Scarlet Woman. And as for Joseph: “thou son of David,” “Where is the new born king of Israel,” INRI (“Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum”—Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) posted over the cross, and so on? Just more of the same idea.

Another clue to that idea is where Jesus seeks out his cousin, John the Baptist. All of these people were related or knew each other, and more importantly, knew who each other were. The priestly part of his lineage interested Jesus greatly, possibly because he was far more connected to his mother than to his father, who essentially disappears from the story. This also explains the mixup in his genealogy, with different lines cited in different Gospels. It was all about David the King. His status was priest-king, much like Prester John and later Christian stories, something that CS Lewis referred to when he named the hero in his space trilogy Mr. Fisher-King, although his given name was Ransom, which was no accident, of course. 

Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed one, the royal one, who would lead Israel against the hated Romans. This explains also why he was never heard from again for 30 years, except right before his Bar Mitzvah, where he amazed everyone with his knowledge. It also explains why he made his entry into Jerusalem, why he “fulfilled” the prophecies, and why it all came crashing down shortly afterwards. He was a priest, not a politician, and a nobody, not a general. It explains why Judas was first attracted to him, but later “betrayed” him when he realized that Jesus wasn’t interested in the king part, or the political side, at all. Shades of Jesus Christ Superstar! Jesus himself was quite clear on the subject: My kingdom is not of this world. All that is required is a slight shift of perspective to see that he meant that literally. Unfortunately, because he just didn’t turn out to be the one promised to relieve the Hebrews of those annoying Romans, they turned on him. That was pretty much that, and it’s what the Bible clearly says. 

But Pilate didn’t know any of that. He didn’t care about the religion, which is why he said he found no fault in Jesus. What he saw was a possible threat to Rome’s political power, and therefore his own, of course. But to keep the peace, he crucified Jesus, because that was what was done with political insurrectionists. Rome was happy and Pilate was happy. Also, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were happy, because their power was threatened by Jesus the priest as well.

Paul and Jesus: the rest of the story 

It was well after the death of Jesus that the Gospels were written, after the letters of Paul, after Paul had started his religion. But he had already started with the magic, myths and miracles by talking about the resurrected Jesus. He opened the door to the impossible and the improbable because he was starting a new religion, and as with Glycon, that’s how they did it in those days. Thus, it is no surprise that he seemed completely unaware of the virgin birth and the choirs of angels and the miracles. 

At the beginning of this essay, I offered six possible options for the reality of Jesus. The only one I have not discussed so far is the one that sociologically, I think is most likely. Christianity, like all religions, like the cult of Glycon in particular, was a business. In her book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Barbara Thiering goes on at length about precisely that. Given all of Paul’s scurrying around the empire, and the money, and the influence, Paul was interested in starting a business/religion. Whether he actually believed any of it is another story. His warning in Galatians that no one should believe or buy any gospel but his, as well as his conflicts with the early Christian leaders who actually knew Jesus, are a good indication of what he was about. There was no Spirit Airlines in those days. It cost money to travel, and it took a long time to do it. It was a way to earn a living.

So I think that is the real story of Jesus, and it’s right there in the gospels, but overlaid with magic, myths, and miracles. And then to me there is always this question, one that is never answered except by a wave of the hands: who was bar Abbas, the Son of the Father, also known as Jesus bar Abbas (see Matthew 27:15–18)? That is a very familiar phrase in the Gospels: “He shall be called the Son of the Father, Emmanuel, God with us.” 

And what about the mentions of “other” Jesuses in the NT? It was a common enough name, but all of these were people that seem to have some kind of status. They made it into the story for some reason. Were at least some of them, if not all, the same Jesus, the one that survived? And if this Jesus bar Abbas, who escaped the crucifixion, survived, is this why the tomb was empty? This would also explain why Jesus was able to make appearances after he was “dead,” because no one survives crucifixion. He didn’t die and/or he wasn’t resurrected. And maybe what those other mentions of Jesus were referring to were just the one that survived. Barbara Thiering’s book says precisely that. Jesus was traveling around with Paul, and quite possibly showing off his scars and wounds to “prove” that he had been resurrected. Paul very tellingly spoke in the present tense: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” 

Paul was making his money. 

I realize that Barbara Thiering is not considered the best Jesus scholar around, and there are reasons to be highly critical of her work. But that doesn’t mean her take on the story isn’t a correct one, especially given the improbabilities and the impossibilities that are presented as absolute facts in the gospels, despite all of the contradictions. 

And because it makes much more sense than all of the magic, myths, and miracles. When you eliminate the improbable and the impossible, whatever remains, if not fabricated from whole cloth, must be the truth.

I have one last question. Who was the “evil priest” discussed in the Dead Sea Scrolls? If those scrolls have anything at all to do with the events surrounding the life and times of Jesus, an answer to that question could be very important. That person was not named, only referred to. Thiering—I think, because it’s been quite a few years since I read her book, and it might have been someone else—thinks that it was Paul. I think that it was Karen Armstrong—again, it’s been a few years since I read her books—who believes it was Jesus himself. If Jesus survived the crucifixion and was wandering around telling people that he had been resurrected, that might make perfect sense. It explains the conflicts that Paul had with the people who knew Jesus in Jerusalem.

We may never get definitive answers to these questions. But once the magic, myths, and miracles are removed from the New Testament, which they must be by rational people—and by rational, I mean non-religious—what are we left with, but a possible historical record that has been thoroughly contaminated by both the improbable and the impossible.

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...