Sorting Through the Jesus Myths
Editor’s Note: Christians love the Jesus stories – from the Virgin Birth of Christmas through the Resurrection at Easter – but a careful examination of the known history of his life and the early Christian faith suggests that these stories were myths created decades after the actual events for the purpose of building the church.
In this guest essay, retired Baptist minister Howard Bess sorts through the narratives of the New Testament and what they say about who Jesus really was:
Jesus from Nazareth was still a young man when he was killed in Jerusalem. The best estimate is that he was in his early 30s.
His public career as a teacher and prophet was short. No longer than three years. His impact on poor, rural people in northern Palestine was profound.
His listeners had never heard or seen anything quite like him. He made a trip to Jerusalem and his life was snuffed out quickly. He was crucified as a rabble-rousing troublemaker.
After the shock of his death, the truth that he spoke took on a life of its own. His followers were emboldened to repeat his stories and sayings. The phenomenon of oral tradition among poor people worked its magic. His band of followers grew rapidly.
Inevitably the key question was asked: “Who was he?”
The first writing witness about Jesus was Paul from Tarsus, the persecutor of Jesus followers. Paul had a profound spiritual experience while traveling toward Damascus. About ten years after the death of Jesus, Paul experienced Jesus as a blinding light that threw him to the ground.
Paul became convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was alive and powerfully at work in the world. He joined in the chorus of followers who were asking the question, “Who was he?”
Paul gave us the earliest answer when he wrote in Colossians 1:19 “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
The proof of a unique incarnation for Paul was the Jesus who met him on the Damascus Road as the resurrected Lord of life. Paul needed no other witness. This earliest witness to the joining of God and man in one person was based completely on Paul’s personal experience.
Paul came into contact with followers of Jesus, apparently even some of the twelve Jesus disciples.
In none of Paul’s writings does he ever tell or even allude to the resurrection narratives that are found in the Matthew, Mark, Luke or John gospel narratives. Neither did he show any knowledge of the birth stories that are found in the Matthew and Luke writings.
In his letter to Roman Christians, Paul states his understanding. In Romans 1:4, he writes of Jesus as “designated Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”
Paul put Jesus on the path of becoming God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus as God incarnate.
The next writing witness about Jesus was the author of the Mark gospel. He gives a different perspective.
In chapter one, Mark reports that Jesus came to John the Baptizer to be baptized. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and God’s Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and declared, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
This declaration is another version of how Jesus became Son of God and eventually second person of a Trinity.
It is worth noting that Mark, the earliest of the four gospel versions, shows no knowledge of a miraculous birth and the author wrote a minimal version of the resurrection narrative.
For the common reader of the New Testament, it is only natural to begin reading the Matthew gospel, the first book of the New Testament. And the first story that greets the reader is the narrative about the birth of Jesus.
The story is prefaced with a genealogy that links Jesus with Father Abraham. What the reader is observing is the third attempt of the early church to answer the question, “Who was he?”
The first attempt was that of Paul. The second was that of the Mark gospel writer. Third in line was the Matthew writer. There were significant interludes of time between the three versions.
The Matthew account is the one that triggers our Christmas celebration. The Virgin Mary is introduced and the story is told embellished with worshipers from afar. Jesus was worthy of worship from birth.
The last New Testament attempt to explain “Who was he?” is the Luke writer. There is probably as much as a generation between the writing of Matthew and Luke.
Luke also tells the story of a virgin birth. Luke’s version is three times longer than Matthew. The story expands and the account is more detailed. The message is the same: Jesus was worthy of worship from birth.
Christians have continued to try to answer the question “Who was he?” We have left an almost endless stream of creeds and confessions of faith. The ghost of Jesus probably chuckles at every attempt of people to define him.
I find insights and inspiration from the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. … Every year in this season I reread the birth narratives and sing the carols that witness to the specialness of Jesus from Nazareth, and my spirit is quickened.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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