Jesus is not an historical figure but a sacred hero
Thursday 11 November 1999
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)
- 1 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 2 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 3 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 4 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 5 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Spiritual leader allegedly manipulated 400 men into removing testicles to be 'closer to God'
The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...
£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...
£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...
£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...