Jesus is not an historical figure but a sacred hero

Historical Notes
WHEN JESUS was being crucified, his favourite disciple, John, could not bear to watch his master's suffering. Instead, he went up the Mount of Olives, took refuge in a cave and wept. Then, in the darkness of the cave, Jesus appeared to John. And Jesus told John that the crowd around the cross below them in Jerusalem were ignorant. They thought that it was Jesus himself who was being crucified.

But Jesus tells John that he is not a body but a voice. He says: "I am not the man who is on the cross. I was understood to be what I am not. I am not what for the many I am, and what they will say of me is mean and unworthy." Later, when John went down from the cave to the city and met others who described Jesus's crucifixion, John laughed, because, he alone knew about Jesus's unsuffering immortality.

Other ancient Christian stories drive the same point home. Three gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew) tell us that, before Jesus's crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene was made to carry his cross. But another version has Jesus seize this opportunity to swap identities with Simon. So, while Simon who now looks like Jesus was being crucified, Jesus himself was up in Heaven laughing triumphantly at the success of his escape by deception. Another early Christian account, the Apocalypse of Peter, has Jesus tell Peter that only a substitute, fleshly Jesus was crucified, while the superior and spiritual Jesus, "the living Jesus", rejoiced overhead laughing.

Behind the laughter lurked serious theology. Some early Christians believed that Jesus was more divine than human, more spirit than corrupting flesh. For them, Jesus merely "seemed" to suffer on the cross. These Christians therefore tried to avoid representing the carnality of Jesus's death with as much passion as most Christians, both then and now, try to avoid the sexuality of his conception.

The human Jesus was a Jew. He was born between 4 BC (the death of Herod) and AD 6 (the Roman census in Syria). He was killed by a lethal combination of Jewish priests and Roman rulers sometime between AD 26 and 36 (while Pontius Pilate was sub-governor of Judaea).

It seems improbable that this human Jesus had any intention of founding a new religion. After his death, the long-term leader of the new Jesus movement was Jesus's brother James, a committed Jew who worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem, and was friendly with Pharisees. The earliest Christians were predominantly Jews.

The New Testament gospels were probably written some 40 to 60 years after Jesus's death, when precise memories of what Jesus had said and done had already faded. The canonical New Testament was not firmly established as a set of sacred texts until the second half of the second century. Meanwhile, Christians often used Jewish scriptures to authenticate their claims about Christ, and wrote many and beautifully diverse accounts of Jesus's life.

Because the early gospels were not yet holy scripture, early Christian writers originally changed the Jesus story to suit their own views. For example, Mark and John either did not know or chose to ignore the story of the virgin birth, the final section. Mark was subsequently written to reveal some of Jesus's post-resurrection appearances. The last chapter of John was written by another author. Several of Paul's letters are not by Paul.

We have been taught to believe that only the gospel versions of Jesus are true. But the primacy of the canonical scriptures is an illusion created by church power and by our own deeply embedded cultural traditions. Many early Christians believed instead that Jesus came back to earth for several years, or that Mary Magdalene was his favourite disciple. The true Jesus is not an historical figure, but a sacred hero, constantly reconstructed. Individual believers have always constructed their own Jesus. They still do.

Keith Hopkins is the author of `A World Full of Gods' (Weidenfeld. pounds 25)