Jesus Christ

Jesus is a historical figure who lived in the Roman province of Palestine in the first century CE. He is also, obviously, the central figure in the religion of Christianity.

The most likely explanation of Jesus seems to be that he was a charismatic preacher who felt strongly about social justice (e.g. he was very against the rich and a fierce advocate for the poor) and stoked rebellious sentiment against the rule of Ancient Rome. It’s this, ultimately, that he was crucified for.

Furthermore, it also seems likely that before his death, there was already a religious movement emerging around him. Jesus’ followers seem to have believed that the apocalypse was imminent (part of which would have been the resurrection of all the dead), and due to be followed by some post-apocalyptic paradise (the “world to come”); they often abandoned their pre-Jesus livelihoods and put their absolute faith in him, including being willing to die for him (and later, for the early Christian faith). It’s also possible that they were told (by Jesus himself? or who?) to expect Jesus’ resurrection even before he died, because it seems that non-followers of Jesus at the time were concerned that early Christians might stage his resurrection in order to “fulfil” their own prophecies.

As an irreligious person myself, and not a believer in anything else “supernatural” (like ghosts or angels or whatever…), naturally I do not believe that Jesus actually died then was resurrected from death three days later. It’s quite clear that many of Jesus’ followers themselves strongly believed that he did, though.1 The most widespread non-supernatural explanation for this seems to be that many of his followers experienced a grief hallucination, given the strength of their faith in him to basically save the world, the depth of their grief, and the possibility they’d been primed to expect a resurrection. Another explanation is cognitive dissonance, basically that Jesus’ followers strongly clung to this belief in his resurrection in spite of the lack of any evidence for it. That might sound ridiculous, but the effect has been empirically observed to occur in numerous other religious sects.

Historicity of Jesus

Among reputable scholars, it is basically unquestioned that Jesus is a genuine historical figure (he’s not just completely made up!). Some people (mythicists, they’re called) disagree, because there is no real evidence of his existence from the time that he actually lived. However, we’re talking about the ancient world – there’s basically no one who wasn’t royalty or otherwise a ruler who has evidence of their existence dating back to the time they were alive. If we applied this standard to Jesus, we would also have to conclude that Socrates or Aristotle never existed, because we also only know about them from later stories.

Here are a few of the reasons why it’s believed Jesus definitely did exist:

  • New sects and cults very rarely arise, much less rapidly, without some kind of cohering figure at the centre of them, and this was just as true in the ancient world (if not more so!) as now. The explosive growth of the “Jesus sect” (from perhaps 20–30 people at his death, to hundreds by the end of that decade, to having spread across the Roman Empire by 50 CE) suggests they had a very strong cohering force – let’s say, a charismatic preacher who’d won over a dedicated group of supporters who passionately spread the word about him (perhaps embellished a bit) after his death.
    • We know that Christians were already living in Rome by, at the latest, the 60s CE because Tacitus wrote about them. He wrote: The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city (Rome). Another Roman writer, Suetonius, produced a more debatable line about Jews rioting on the instigation of Chrestus whose most probable explanation is nonetheless that there were Christians in Rome in the 50s CE, and that Suetonius just spelt “Christus” wrong. Both these texts were written in 115 CE.
    • Then the dating of early Christian texts themselves give clues: the earliest gospel, Mark, was written around 70 CE; Matthew and Luke, partly based on Mark, were written about 80–85 CE; Matthew and Luke also share substantial sections of identical text that are not taken from Mark, but presumably from another early gospel now lost (called “Q”). So, around 40–50 years after Jesus’ death, there is this increasing need to write down what has previously been an oral history in order to make it more accessible to new generations of Christians. Furthermore, the earliest letters of Paul are generally dated to the early 50s CE, so Christianity had spread into Asia Minor and Greece at least by then.
  • There are various accounts of his life (e.g. the New Testament gospels) which are not all consistent with each other, but are consistent on certain key points which suggest they align to the life story of a real person. For example, the gospels worked very hard to have Jesus be born in Beth­le­hem (not agreeing with each other at all about why his parents found themselves there), because the earlier Book of Micah predicted that a “saviour” would be born in Beth­le­hem. However, these stories all go on to say that Jesus’ family went back to Naz­a­reth and that he was raised there and so on and so forth, which suggests that Jesus truly existed and that he grew up in Naz­a­reth, and that everyone knew he was from Naz­a­reth, which is why the stories had to include him growing up in Naz­a­reth. If Jesus was 100% made up, why would they bother placing him in Naz­a­reth? They could’ve just said he was from Beth­le­hem and been done with it.

See Also / References

  1. There was a group, the Gnostics, who believed instead that Jesus was “resurrected” in a different, non-material body made of ether, rather than his actual human body regaining life. ↩︎