The truth about Jesus

Ian Robinson / 10 December 2014

Sifting through what little evidence there is about the origins of Christianity…

The truth about Jesus is that we just don’t know what the truth about Jesus is. There are of course a number of accounts of his life and words, and some of the deeds described and the sayings quoted may well have occurred or been said. But the problem is that the only accounts we have have been through such a tenuous transmission process and contain so many contradictions that it is nigh impossible to say with any certainty which bits are true and which are not.

We know that Christians existed back then, but the evidence for the existence of the religion’s purported founder is so shaky that many have argued that no such person as Jesus ever existed. It can’t be proved, but I believe, on the balance of probabilities, that there was indeed a Nazarene preacher called Jesus living and working in Palestine around 30CE. However there are a multiplicity of problems in being certain about much else about him.

Let’s examine the fragile thread that gives us the stories about Jesus we have today.

The first important fact is that Jesus spoke and preached in Aramaic, the common Palestinian language of the day. But the accounts we have of him were written in Greek. The ease with which things can be “lost in translation” is evident. Without any Aramaic originals we have no way of knowing to what extent our Greek texts are accurate translations of what Jesus actually said.

Second, we have no eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life. Even if we did, this would not bring a great deal of certainty. American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, among others, has conducted extensive research that challenges the credibility of eyewitness accounts. In the 1990s, when forensic DNA testing first began exonerating previously convicted people, 52 of the first 62 convictions overturned by new DNA evidence involved mistaken eyewitness  testimony.

Third, the written accounts we have are transcriptions of already unreliable oral stories that were passed down from person to person for a number of decades before they were written down. The oral transmission of stories is subject to multiple sources of distortion and is of very low reliability. A number of processes well documented by narratologists come into play. For example, storytellers rationalise stories, that is make changes that seem to them to make the story more consistent or coherent or more in line with their purpose or their audience’s expectations; they elaborate, add details that make the story more graphic or gripping or amazing; they personalise, that is they move the events of the story to their own experience or that of a close relative or friend, which gives it greater immediacy and credence; and finally, they mythologise, that is, if they are telling the story of a heroic figure, they introduce story elements that mirror the mythic stories of other cultural heroes, elements which the audience will expect to hear.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]the stories about Jesus’ life follow the hero paradigm remarkably closely, which raises the suspicion that the mythic aspects of his story … are no more true that those attributed to King Arthur[/quote]

This certainly seems to have happened in Jesus’ case: folklorists have analysed hero myths and established the “ideal type” of the hero story and they have found that the stories recorded about Jesus’ life follow this hero paradigm remarkably closely, which raises the suspicion that the mythic aspects of his story, such as his miraculous conception, are no more true that those attributed to King Arthur or Jason or Siegfried.

It should be made clear that such processes are not always deliberate attempts to distort or deceive, but simply reflect the natural and admirable propensity of people telling stories to try to make them as meaningful and as compelling as possible for the listener.

We should also bear in mind that the fairly rigid boundary that exists today between fantasising and describing, between fiction and non-fiction, did not exist in the first century – there was no tradition of fact-finding investigative journalism – and the factual and the fabulous sat easily together in the narrative tradition of the time, as any reading of the classics will reveal.

There is no reason to suppose that such processes as outlined above did not operate on the transmission of the stories circulating in the first century about Jesus. Nor must we forget that most of these stories were not told dispassionately, just for information, but with the purpose of convincing the listener that the hero of the stories, Jesus, was someone worth believing in and worth following – this intention must have influenced the way the tales were told.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]when … the authors of the gospels started to write down their stories of Jesus, they had no single reliable source of information but a multitude of conflicting stories and theories about Jesus.[/quote]

So when people such as the authors of the gospels started to write down their stories of Jesus, towards the end of the century, they had no single reliable source of information but a multitude of conflicting stories and theories about Jesus to choose from. Most of them are now lost, suppressed by the Church, although a few resurfaced at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.

Moreover, the writers of the Gospels were themselves hardly disinterested parties. They were committed Christians and their versions of Jesus’ story were written to confirm and strengthen the Christian community in its faith. On top of that, each writer had his own particular agenda and message about Jesus which he wished to push. For example, for Matthew, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, for Luke, he was the saviour of the whole world, and they each constructed their narratives accordingly.

Each evangelist tells a different version of the story and the versions are far from consistent. The myriad contradictions are not denied by Christians, who spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to resolve them. What is disputed is the ultimate significance of the multiple contradictions, which believers try to minimise. But contradiction in evidence is seen as a key indicator of falsehood in many contexts. Police during interrogations, and barristers in courtroom cross-examination, will variously attempt to catch their subjects out in contradictions and inconsistencies in order to show they are not telling the truth.

Ironically. the Bible itself insists on consistency: in the story of “Susannah and the Elders”, Daniel convicts the two Elders of lying because their accounts differ (in a fairly insignificant particular) and this is accepted by the populace (and by God) as proof of their perfidy. On this criteria, the four Gospels must be untrue.

Be that as it may, the fact is that if they contradict each other they can’t all be true. Perhaps none of them are, or perhaps each of them contains some truth and some falsehood. But in the absence of other evidence, it is impossible to tell which bits are which, so even if we had authenticated manuscripts by each of the four purported authors we would not be in a position to make any reliable statements about what Jesus said or did. Hardly a secure basis for a religious worldview!

But of course we don’t have any such thing. We only have copies, and handwritten copies at that. For the first one thousand five hundred years the way the gospels were transmitted was by painstaking letter-by-letter transcription by multiple hands of varying levels of skill. The opportunities for making mistakes were numerous. And again, the transcribers were not disinterested and were not above making changes and additions when it suited their purposes. The most egregious example is probably the addition of a dozen verses at the end of Mark’s Gospel, describing the alleged resurrection, but there would have been many more of various degrees of significance.

Moreover, the earliest copies of the gospels in Greek that we have date from about 200 AD. Plenty of time for errors to creep in. Variations within the extant Greek texts are by no means rare. In 1707, when Oxford scholar John Mill finally compared the 100 oldest and most reliable Greek Gospel manuscripts then available, he found over 30,000 differences between them. Now we have many more manuscripts and the differences between them have grown exponentially. This testifies to the unreliability of the copying process.

The advent of printing in the fifteenth century meant that large numbers of identical copies of existing texts could be distributed, which did nothing to rectify the inaccuracies, deliberate or accidental, that were already in them. And there was still the possibility of typesetting errors, which then became fixed and widely disseminated.

So it seems as time went on, the stories about Jesus available to us deviated more and more. In the early years the deviations – mainly additions – would have been quite substantial, as a diversity of stories about Jesus were incorporated. During the ensuing millennium the deviations – mainly transcription errors– would have been less prevalent, and during the last half century would have dropped away to virtually zero.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]the probability is at best no more than one third of the Gospels account of Jesus is true. Unfortunately we do not know which parts make up that third[/quote]

So how much is now true?  For the sake of argument, let’s express it in numerical terms: suppose the average deviation from the truth each year since Jesus’ life and death has been only 0.05% per annum. This is a conservative estimate – the actual average deviation  rate  is  probably  much  higher.  But  taking  0.05%  per annum as our minimum, then this means that the probability is at best no more than one third of the Gospels account of Jesus is true. Unfortunately we do not know which parts make up that third. We can however make some educated guesses.

It is most likely that, if anything, it is the plain facts of Jesus’ life that are true. It is not likely that storytellers would speak or write truly about someone being born of a virgin, performing a series of miracles, and rising from the dead, and then invent a totally fictional character called “Jesus of Nazareth”, to whom all these amazing things allegedly happened. What is far more likely, to the point of being the only rational conclusion to draw, is that the true bits concern a Nazarene preacher called Jesus who flourished in first century Palestine and who fell foul of the Romans and was executed; and that all the other stories about virgin birth and miracles and resurrection and ascension are fictional – later accretions to the myth that developed.

So, on the balance of probabilities, the truth about Jesus is that there may have been someone of that name in Galilee in the first century who preached the immanent apocalypse, and who went to Jerusalem in about the year 30, and in the words of the Creed, “was crucified, dead and buried”. But there is nothing else about Jesus we can claim is true, or even to claim as probable. The whole edifice of the Christian religion is based of a flimsy tissue of myths which have a purely human origin.

All the more reason.