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The title of this article is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 1965 epic film The Greatest Story Ever Told which gave Hollywood’s version of Jesus’s life from the Nativity, his Ministry, through to his Passion, and finally his Resurrection and Ascension. The main casting was Max Von Sydow as Jesus, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist (seriously!), Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate, cameo roles by famous Hollywood stars, and bizarrely, John Wayne as a Roman Centurion who utters those immortal words “Truly this man was the Son of God” as only “The Duke” can articulate in his inimitable style.

The only information we have for this story comes from the four Gospels (“Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” & “John”) plus the “Acts of the Apostles.” These are non-eyewitness accounts, written by anonymous, committed Christian writers: The names attributed to these Gospels were added in the 2nd Century; there are no names attached to the original manuscripts. It is impossible to say how much of the writing is fact and how much is pious fiction.

Although Paul’s epistles are dated earlier than the Gospels (approximately 50-60 CE), they give little or no biographical details about Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark was the first Gospel written—probably around 70 CE (it is believed that Jesus was crucified around 30–33 CE, so the first Gospel was written around 40 years after Jesus’s death). This was followed by Matthew and Luke around 80-85 CE, and, finally, John, written around 90-95 CE.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke are normally referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” (“Synoptic” meaning “seen together”) as they share much of the same narrative, sometimes even quoting each other verbatim. John is considered to be an independent narrative, although it appears that the author knew of the “Synoptics,” but wanted to put his own emphasis on the narrative. “The Acts of the Apostles” is normally attributed to the author of the Gospel of Luke, making up a two-volume narrative and generally dated between 80–90 CE.

The Synoptics appear to describe Jesus as “The Messiah,” whereas John seems to suggest that Jesus was “God Incarnate.”

I should first address “The Big Question”—namely, was there an actual person named Jesus who lived, preached, and died in 1st Century Palestine? I should state at the outset that I lean towards the historicist camp (i.e., Jesus was an actual person) rather than the mythicist camp (i.e., Jesus was a fictitious character invented by the writers of the Gospels). Can I prove it? No, and I can understand where the mythicist camp is coming from, since we have no contemporaneous documents from this period that definitively identify this person. Also, his feats are more in keeping with a mythical character such as Hercules. However, I think there are reasons to think Jesus was an actual person based on two arguments:

  1. It seems that Jesus was widely known as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazarene.” There is some debate as to whether Nazareth actually existed in Jesus’s time, but, evidently, the Gospel writers assumed that Jesus had his roots in a Galilean town called Nazareth. This created a problem for the Gospel writers who wished to show that Jesus was the “Messiah” since the “Messiah” was to be born in King David’s birthplace of Bethlehem in Judea.
    Only Matthew and Luke have nativity (i.e., birth) narratives and craft two different elaborate and mutually contradictory narratives to explain how Jesus could be known as “Jesus of Nazareth” but was actually born in Bethlehem (for more detail, see Jonathan MS Pearce’s excellent book The Nativity: A Critical Examination).
    In any case, if someone were writing a fictitious account, it would be simpler to have this mythical character be born in Bethlehem, and be known as “Jesus of Bethlehem.”
  2. Jewish scripture is quite specific as to what a messiah would be like and what he would achieve during his lifetime. It was generally accepted that the Messiah would be a great military figure who would throw off the yoke of foreign domination and bring Judea back to scriptural purity. The Messiah would not have been considered “divine” (which would be considered blasphemous), but could be “divinely inspired.” All these things would be expected to be accomplished in the Messiah’s lifetime, not at a future date upon a “Second Coming.” If one were crafting a fictional narrative about a messiah figure, one would not describe that person in the way the Gospels portray, which has Jesus essentially depicted as a failure, being a weak individual who ends up being tortured and crucified as an insurrectionist against Roman rule. And furthermore, he did not fulfill any messianic prophecies.

So having established that (at least to my satisfaction), we can move on to the Jesus narrative itself.

The Nativity

The main story starts with Jesus’s birth. I think we can safely rule out any “virgin birth” aka “Impregnation by the Holy Spirit.” As many who read this article will know, this seems to stem from a mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 from Hebrew into Greek for the Septuagint (thre Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). The original Hebrew has the meaning of “young woman” with no particular emphasis on virginity, but the Greek translation used the Greek word for “virgin.” This was then used by Matthew as if to predict the virgin birth of the Messiah.

To make this situation even more bizarre, the passage in Isaiah is not even a messianic prophecy. It relates to an event that happened 700 years before Jesus was born, where King Ahaz was facing an invasion of his land by two armies. The prophecy related to whether his country would survive or not. It is difficult to see how this prophecy could relate to a messianic figure who lived 700 years later. Having disposed of this notion, I think it is safe to discount the other features that Matthew associated with Jesus’ birth (e.g., the Magi with gifts of gold frankincense, and myrrh, a magical star, Slaughter of the Innocents, the escape to Egypt, etc.). As a sidenote, the slaughter of the innocents was supposedly carried out on Herod the Great’s orders. However, Josephus (37CE to 100CE)—the Jewish Historian and no lover of Herod makes no mention of such an atrocity. As for the escape to Egypt, well, you get the picture.

Similarly, it seems plausible to reject Luke’s assertions about Jesus’ nativity, since the census referred to by Luke only applied to Judea, and not to Galilee where Jesus’s parents apparently lived. In addition, the Census, as described by Luke, had Jesus’ parents returning to the home town of Joseph’s ancestor (King David) from 1000 years earlier, rather than being counted in their home village. Obviously, this is a most impractical way of conducting a census.

The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not easy to determine. If one uses Matthew’s nativity account, it would probably be 6 BCE based on the reign of Herod the Great, but based on Luke’s account it would probably be around 6 CE based on a census by the Roman governor Quirinius. This gives a 12-year window for a date, so it would be helpful to narrow this down.

Luke says that John to Baptist began his ministry in “the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” which would put this around 27-29 CE depending on how one interprets Tiberius’ reign. Luke states that Jesus started his own ministry when he was “about 30” (which would probably be in the age range of 28 to 32), but Jesus really only started his ministry after the arrest and execution of John the Baptist. If we take the 28 CE date for John the Baptist’s ministry and his arrest and execution in, say, 29 CE then we have a date range of 3 BCE to 1 CE (a 4-year window) for Jesus’ birth year.

Pontius Pilate ruled Judea between 26 CE to 36 CE, and the date of Jesus’ crucifixion is normally presumed to be between 30 and 33 CE, which would fit. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus’ ministry lasting 1 year but John has it lasting at least 3 years.

It is really a “toss-up” which birth year to choose: a popular choice is 1 BCE.

Before continuing the Jesus narrative, it is important to briefly explain “Apocalypticism,” since it is crucial for an understanding of future events in Jesus’s life.

Wikipedia partly defines it thus:

The religious versions of these views and movements often focus on cryptic revelations about a sudden, dramatic, and cataclysmic intervention of God in history; the judgment of humanity; the salvation of the faithful elect; and the eventual rule of the elect with God in a renewed heaven and earth.

In the context of 1st Century Judaism, many Jews believed that things had become extremely onerous for “The Chosen People” since they were being oppressed by pagan rulers (the Romans). They believed that, at some point, things would reach a climax and God would intervene to restore Jewish sovereignty in a “New Kingdom on Earth.”

Those people who had colluded with the Romans (e.g., the High Priests and Scribes of the Temple) would be judged and annihilated, but those had stayed faithful to God’s teachings would be rewarded, and be given prominent positions in this New Kingdom.

An apocalyptic prophet

The view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet was first proposed by Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965). In more recent times, this view was also held by many New Testament scholars, including Bart D. Ehrman (1955- ). In this view, Jesus (also most likely John the Baptist and Paul of Tarsus) was expecting this intervention by God to be imminent (within their lifetime), as epitomized by the Gospel verse supposedly spoken by Jesus: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  (Matthew 16:28).

From various statements made by Jesus (according to the Gospels), it can be ascertained that he believed he was “the Messiah”, and his ministry would bring about God’s intervention. He further believed that, after God’s intervention, he would be appointed by God to be “King of the Jews” with his twelve disciples being his “Ministers” to handle the affairs of the “Twelve Tribes of Israel.” In this context, “Messiah” just means “Anointed One” which could apply to Kings of Israel or High Priests. It carries no inference of divinity, although “the Messiah” would probably expect to be divinely inspired.

It seems likely Jesus knew of this movement when growing up, and learning about Jewish law and culture, and thus he sought out John the Baptist who was active around Galilee, baptizing people for the remission of sin, and readying them for the imminent Apocalypse. It would appear that Jesus wished to join the movement, as a disciple of John the Baptist, and thus wished to be baptized by John.

It is almost certain that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist was historical. We can know this because Mark’s Gospel is unambiguous about this, but later Gospels had a problem with the baptism.

(Sidebar Note: Mark’s gospel has a distinct “Adoptionism” slant—that Jesus was just a normal human selected by God to bring about the New Kingdom on Earth. This was later declared heretical by later Christian leaders).

Since John’s baptism was supposedly for the “remission of sins,” later Gospel writers wanted Jesus to be portrayed as “sinless.” They presumably could not ignore the baptism as it was probably well-known in the early Christian community, so they just tried to minimize its importance. Matthew has John the Baptist acknowledging Jesus’ superiority, Luke tries to play down the baptism, and John has just a passing reference.

I think we can safely skip over most of the middle part of Jesus’s ministry, since, I believe, it is largely a-historical. As a skeptic, I discount all the miracle narratives. I consider them as later embellishments by the Gospel writers in an attempt to boost Jesus’s image to appeal to potential converts to Christianity.

Temple tantrum

One incident, however, that I believe was historical was the disturbance in the Temple. It is mentioned by the Synoptic Gospels, and even John (who tends to be independent of the Synoptics) includes it, although placing it at the start of Jesus’ ministry rather at the end of his ministry as per the Synoptics. It was probably too well-known for it to be omitted.

The motive for Jesus’s actions, in the Temple, is unclear, but I propose two hypotheses:-

  1. Jesus was hoping to initiate an insurrection against Roman rule, and the complicity of the Temple authorities who benefited from the Temple tax. Passover was always a time of heightened tensions (the Roman Governor even drafted in extra soldiers during this time to quell any possible uprising). In Jewish culture, Passover marked the release of the Israelites from slavery under Egyptian rule. Now, many Jews considered they were “slaves” under Roman rule, and dreamt of throwing off this yoke. Jesus maybe thought his demonstration of defiance would rally the crowds to join in an insurrection.
  2. Jesus was expecting to be arrested, and face insurrection/sedition charges by the Roman rulers, and thus face the death penalty. He firmly believed he was the Messiah, and was chosen by God to be the Ruler of Israel after God intervened at the expected Apocalypse. As such, God could not allow him to die, and thus would be forced to intervene to save him, thus triggering the overthrow of Roman rule.

Unfortunately for Jesus, neither scenario played out, and he ended up being crucified as an insurrectionist by the Romans. In any event, I believe Jesus was arrested by the Temple guards, and the Priests decided to hand him over to the Roman authorities. The Priests had an understanding with the Roman rulers that, they were allowed to follow their laws and traditions, provided they kept the citizens under control. Jesus represented a threat to this arrangement, and thus the Priests thought it best to let the Romans deal with an insurrectionist who threatened the established order.

The trial

The Trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin has so many errors of Jewish jurisprudence that, I am of the opinion that it never took place (trial undertaken at night, death penalty declared straight away, physical attack on the defendant, etc.), and I think it is almost certain that Jesus was summarily executed by the Romans for insurrection/sedition, who would have had no compunction about executing any rabble-rouser who presented a threat to their rule.

Crucifixion was the prescribed punishment for insurrection/sedition under Roman rule. There were easier and quicker ways to administer capital punishment under the Roman system, but the main purpose of crucifixion was to send a clear message: Do not challenge Roman rule. It was a slow, painful, lingering death, with many victims taking days to die. It acted as a humiliation, being a public execution, and was the denial of an honorable burial.

If there had been a trial by the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council), and Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, he would have almost certainly been stoned to death as prescribed by Jewish law, and the Roman Governor would not have intervened. However, declaring oneself to be the Messiah was not considered blasphemous (since the Messiah was supposed to be just an exceptional human being), whereas declaring oneself “divine” would have been. There are no instances in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus declared himself divine, as exemplified by the quote “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

My thought is that, by the time the Gospels were written, there was already a rift and antagonism between Jews and Christians, and Christians were more aligned with the Greco-Roman culture of the time. It would have been well known that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, so it would be necessary to spin the narrative to put blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus, whilst minimizing Roman involvement. The Gospels even have Pontius Pilate declaring Jesus to be innocent of any crime, and only had Jesus crucified under extreme pressure from the Jewish leadership. This is in stark contrast to what is known of Pontius Pilate, (from information supplied by Josephus, for example) who was a ruthless and cruel Governor of Palestine, who was eventually removed because of his behavior.

The resurrection

The next question is “What happened to Jesus’s body after his death?” (see Jonathan MS Pearce’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story). The Gospel writers would have you believe that his body was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea (possibly with the assistance of Nicodemus—although only mentioned by John) and laid in a tomb, possibly belonging to said Joseph. There is no extra-biblical reference to either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, and the names may have some particular meaning for Mark, as he often used fictitious names to emphasize a particular plot device.

This is exemplified by the “Barabbas versus Jesus” scenario where the Jewish mob was given the choice of releasing one criminal supposedly being a tradition around Passover. Firstly, there is no record of this tradition, and secondly, it would make no sense for the Romans to release an insurrectionist who might cause trouble for them later. When you consider that the meaning of “Barabbas” is “Son of the Father”, and Jesus could be considered a “Son of the (divine) Father” we can clearly see that Mark is setting up a “Yom Kippur atonement ritual.” In the actual Jewish ritual, the High Priest would choose two identical goats. One would have the sins of Israel placed upon it, and then released into the wilderness, and the other would be sacrificed and its blood spread upon the altar in the “Holy of Holies” in the Temple. Hence choosing the name “Barabbas” was deliberately chosen to mirror the “Yom Kippur” ritual.

Some scholars, like Richard Carrier, have opined that “Arimathea” (a place name found in no document from ancient Palestine) could be translated as “Best Disciple Town.” This would make sense since Joseph of Arimathea took charge of Jesus’ burial when all Jesus’ disciples had fled after his arrest. “Joseph” too would make sense, as it would be Jesus’ father’s (i.e., Joseph) responsibility to bury his son, so Joseph of Arimathea would stand as a proxy for Jesus’s father.

Empty tomb

I take issue with the whole “Empty Tomb” narrative, and believe it was a scheme devised by Mark for, perhaps, two reasons:-

  1. To give the impression of an honorable burial of Jesus. Normally, the body of a crucified individual would be denied an honorable burial (as part of the deterrent nature of crucifixion) and would either be buried in a criminal’s graveyard or mausoleum. This would hardly be fitting for someone you are presenting as the Messiah.
  2. It would seem easier to have a “missing body” scenario if its location was clearly defined.

There are multiple problems with the tomb scenario, and the Gospels have many conflicting accounts about the following: who visited, what time, whom did they meet at the tomb, when did the disciples first meet Jesus, etc. Therefore, it is my personal view that the whole tomb narrative was a fictional plot device and, I believe, confirmed by Matthew’s Gospel, as I shall explain.

Matthew has the Jewish leaders coming to Pilate, and saying:

“Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can’. So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” (Matthew 27:63-66).

From this, we can surmise that, by the time Matthew was written, the tomb story was widely circulating, and already Jews were hypothesizing that the Disciples could steal the body of Jesus and claim a “Resurrection.” Now if the tomb story was already circulating when Mark wrote his Gospel (some 10 years earlier), it’s likely someone would then also have argued for a stolen body hypothesis as a refutation of a resurrection, and Mark would have needed to counter this already; but he did not. This leads to the conclusion that the tomb story started with Mark (or an early source for Mark) and was not a feature of early Christian history.

In addition, Paul’s epistles, which date from earlier than the Gospels, make no mention of a tomb, but merely talk about Jesus being “buried” which is an ambiguous term that does not necessarily indicate an entombment. It is interesting that apologists who use the “Minimal Facts Argument” to defend Jesus’ resurrection (eg Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, and William Lane Craig) used to have the “Empty Tomb” as one of their bedrock facts. In recent times, they have backed away from being dogmatic on this point, and have relegated it to a minor incidental “fact.”

The nub of it

Having set all this aside, we get to the real heart of the story: Why did the disciples believe that Jesus had been resurrected, and proclaim this widely?

There are many secular hypotheses regarding this, though the main ones are as follows:

  1. One or more of the disciples had a vivid hallucination/dream that led them to believe they had interacted with the living Jesus. Such “grief hallucinations” are by no means uncommon, and can be understood in the context of the disciples believing that Jesus was truly the Messiah, and could not come to terms with his passing.
  2. Joseph of Arimathea (or just some pious Jew[s]) placed Jesus in a temporary tomb, the location of which was noted by Jesus’s followers. Later, unbeknownst to the followers, the body was later moved to a criminal’s graveyard or mausoleum. The followers, finding this temporary tomb empty, believed Jesus had been raised.
  3. The disciples did in fact steal the body from a tomb, and declared Jesus had resurrected. We only have Matthew’s Gospel mentioning guards at the tomb, which is uncorroborated by any other Gospel.
  4. The so-called “Swoon Theory” where Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but fell into a deep coma. Later, in the coolness of the tomb, he recovered, and later appeared alive to his followers.
  5. My proposed hypothesis, which I will call “The modified Swoon theory.” In this hypothesis, I think that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but fell into a deep coma. The Roman soldiers were convinced he had died, and left it to pious Jews to sort out his burial. When these Jews removed Jesus’ body, they noticed a flicker of life, and realized he was not, indeed, dead. The Jews would have considered Jesus as something of a hero by standing up to the Romans and the corrupt Temple priests, so they would have tried to save him. They then quickly took him to a doctor or apothecary to treat his wounds, and nurse him back to health. Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to return to see his disciples/followers who would have really thought he had come back from the dead. To them, it would have seemed like a miraculous event. I think this hypothesis can explain more of the physical elements of the resurrection story (e.g., walking, talking and eating with the disciples, Thomas touching his wounds, etc.).

Of course, all these hypotheses are just speculation, but any or some combination of these is more likely than a God resurrecting Jesus, literally, from the dead.

The irony of the whole Jesus story is that he never intended to start a new religion. He just wanted Jews to practice “true” Judaism, staying faithful to its roots, as he believed many had strayed from traditional Judaism (and hence were being persecuted for their infidelity). The Jesus sect continued, in Jerusalem, under the leadership of his brother James, with the disciples Peter and John being the main members of this group. They still considered themselves a totally Jewish group that believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but to join this group one had to be Jewish or convert to Judaism (including circumcision for males and keeping a kosher diet).

It was really left to Paul of Tarsus to start converting Gentiles, focusing around Jesus’ message, (but not insisting on converting to Judaism, with all that entailed), and making the resurrection a key part of his ministry. The two movements co-existed in an uneasy alliance (since Paul was bringing in converts, and contributions from the various churches set up by him) until the Jewish War (66-70 CE). The destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem that followed would have crippled the Jerusalem Christians, which meant that Paul’s version of the Jesus sect became the de facto version and was spread widely, morphing into Gentile “Christianity” as it is more commonly known.

So the question is this: Was Jesus’ story “The Greatest Story Ever Told”?

Certainly an interesting story, and obviously one of great significance to Christians, but the “Greatest”? I don’t think so.

David Austin is a retired Englishman now living in Australia. He is a life-long atheist who moved from being more of an apatheist when he was a guest in a church and was harangued by the pastor. He felt he needed to understand the arguments concerned that he has now studied at great length. As a former Senior Electronics Engineer working mostly in Digital Technology (with a Bachelor of Technology degree), and working in computing for so long, logic is important to his work. He is passionate about church and state separation and is active in secular groups to try to reduce the negative influences of religion in society.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...