The Historical Jesus

By Rex WeylerAuthor, blogger I set out five years ago to write “The Jesus Sayings” (Anansi, 2008) with a simple … Continued

By Rex Weyler
Author, blogger

I set out five years ago to write “The Jesus Sayings” (Anansi, 2008) with a simple goal. I wanted to know: Did a real Jesus exist in history? And if so, what did he actually say and do? Scholars have labored over these questions for centuries, and offer no simple answers, but evidence exists to guide such a quest.

Some historians believe the Jesus story is a composite of myths, and indeed later writers attached certain legends to his name. Nevertheless, some 200 ancient sources – sayings collections, gospels, letters, and fragments – attest to Jesus traditions during the two centuries after his death. Most scholars believe the diversity of accounts suggest a real Jesus – Aramaic Yeshua – who strode barefoot and poor from the Galilean hills into history.

The earliest physical evidence of a Jesus story, called “P52,” a little scrap of papyrus the size of a cash register receipt, appears a century after his life, in about 125 A.D. The fragment contains 110 Greek letters comprising twelve complete words, with Jesus explaining that he came into the world, “to witness the truth.”

The earliest complete gospel manuscripts appear in the fourth century, so we may fairly wonder how well Jesus’ message survived centuries of oral transmission, and lost written accounts. Text scholars have pealed back layers of language, compared texts, and concluded that source documents appeared before any narrative gospels were written. These include the gospel of Thomas and other source material used by Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

These earliest accounts describe a divine kingdom “like a mustard seed,” a small thing that grows as a wild plant. We hear Jesus tell the poor to stop worrying about their comforts, to look inside, find the light within, and to share that light with the world. In this earliest layer, Jesus tells followers that spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion.

Archeologists have uncovered the gospels of Mary, Philip, and other early followers that shine fresh light on the Jesus story. Reading this material transformed my understanding of the simple and humble teacher from Galilee. For example, we learn from these ancient sources:

1. The earliest Jesus followers were not Christians at all, but peasant Jews (Ebionites, Nazoreans, and the Thomas sect), who did not necessarily think of Jesus as a messiah, but as a human teacher.

2. Jesus (Yeshua) was a peasant Jew from, “the People of the Land,” an inter-married culture that harboured pagan beliefs about Asherah, the queen of heaven, Tammuz the suffering servant, and other heroes and deities. The northern name, Israelites (Isra el im), distinct from southern Judeans, meant “Defenders of El,” the consort of Asherah in Canaan.

3. “Nazorean” and “Magdalene” may be honorific titles that had nothing to do with towns. A Nazorean is “separated” (nazar) from common society by righteousness. The Magdalene is the “tower,” (magdal) of the flock, the people’s queen. We possess no confirming evidence of a first century Nazareth or Magdala. Fourth century writers under Emperor Constantine assigned towns to these popular titles.

When we peal back the layers of legend we may arrive at something close to a real, historical Jesus. We find a humble peasant teacher, who comforted the poor with a divine kingdom in the here and now, “spread out on the Earth.” We discover that kingdom, he said, by knowing ourselves and by giving to others. As simple as this message appears, even today, it could enlighten the world.

Rex Weyler is the author of “The Jesus Sayings: The quest for his authentic message” (Anansi Press, 2008); “Greenpeace: The Inside Story” (Raincoast, 2004); and “Blood of the Land, a history of the American Indian Movement.”

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  • 12thgenamerican

    more confusion from someone trying to do away with the consequence of sin. jesus’s first followers weren’t christians? wow,thats deep. there couldn’t be any christians till His coming back from the dead. he was a jew as was everyone else around him. why did i read this?

  • njoebott

    To all who have read this blog entry and are considering buying Mr. Weyler’s book, I ask (and pray) that you also consider reading Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. The Pope has dedicated his life to the teachings of Christ and he is the recognized leader of His church. Mr. Weyler is an accomplished environmental activist and journalist and as such clearly has motives beyond spreading the message of Christ…like selling a book and furthering his liberal agenda.

  • valleyforge

    This was a very thoughtful article. There is great value in trying to discover the real– historical–Jesus, rather than spending a lifetime defending doctrine and dogma. While organized Christian religion provides guidance and support to millions, it also has created much mischief in the world. The murderous crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, and KKK all somehow managed to incorporate Christian Theology in their agendas. Less murderous but more insidious are the condemnatory and exclusionistic doctrines of many Fundamentalist and Evangelical sects–quite possibly the exact opposite of the original teachings. Perhaps the basic human need to put a face on the Fearful Void is stronger than the need to understand our human history as accurately as we can. I can more easily accept the guidance of a loving teacher who disclaimed supernatural ties than a supernatural teacher who was not loving.

  • edbyronadams

    Jesus was a Bodhisattva of the Earth. In India, they raised Shakyamuni to godlike status and Buddhism disappeared because the important message is that we, ordinary mortals, can get in touch with the divine, if we apply ourselves to it and find happiness in the here and now. Dividing the secular and divine is a mistake in life and in death. Heaven and Hell only exist here on earth and in people’s perceptions of it.

  • rfgtile

    How wonderful: Jesus tells followers that spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion. Oh…… that this would were to be read in everiy church on every Sunday. We wouldn’t need much more..would we?

  • bmxpayne

    I like this post b/c it helps me understand and accept Jesus. I have been raised (and continue to learn from) family and mentors that are Christians, Catholics, etc.attempting to keep my response orderly…1. “he was 1st and foremost a human teacher.” — Is there any other way that religions could be formed?2. “Jesus (Yeshua) was a peasant Jew from, “the People of the Land,” — This makes me think of the “meek shall inherit the earth”, which may be happening right now thanks to the too-big-too-fail corporate & political-pork-loving leaders.3. “Nazorean” and “Magdalene” may be honorific titles that had nothing to do with towns… My experiences with the church and it’s followers, lead me to believe that white men have a tight grip on leadership and want to control the conversation. What are these men afraid of? Other questions… WWJD if he was asked to advise The President? WWJD buy first right now if he had a credit card with an unused $10k limit?

  • bmxpayne

    “I ask (and pray) that you also consider reading Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. The Pope has dedicated his life to the teachings of Christ and he is the recognized leader of His church……as such clearly has motives beyond spreading the message of Christ…like selling a book and furthering his,” Conservative Catholic agenda.

  • rsk1957

    Jesus’ message of compassion and humility is indeed an inspiration. But as this piece seems to suggest, the entire notion of Jesus’ “divinity” is mythological. The truth of the claims of religion must me treated with the same scrutiny as any other claim. Revelation is not a source of truth. Hence, many of the claims of all religions are highly questionable.

  • hitpoints

    I really enjoyed this piece, and it fits into how I, as a former Christian, now view the life of Jesus. After all, popular myths are taught to American children about George Washington and other historical figures that lived a mere 200 years ago – imagine what happens over many hundreds, and thousands of years.Especially agreed with “spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion” – witness the Evangelicals, who put all emphasis on belief (faith). I’ve had many Christians worry about me and my lack of belief – they never ask me if I helped a poor person today, or spent time with the sick or prisoners. No, the main thrust is “do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior who died for your sins and who rose from the dead?” If you answer in the negative, the response is “but you must!” Never is it an entreaty to live like Jesus… it’s all about “believe as I do!”On a side note, it’s dismaying to see so many typos in the Post these days – “pealed back”??? Not once, but twice. Bells peal. Layers are peeled.

  • vinceporter

    It is time for post-religion. Intelligent human beings – for, perhaps, 2000 years, the most intelligent human beings – have spent their lives striving to understand the questions supposedly answered by religion. The biggies: What happens after death? What is heaven? What is hell? What/where is god? The language has gotten more complicated, the explanations more esoteric, but the understanding has not grown one iota. The child’s understanding is still as deep as the most renowned scholar’s. After a couple of millennia, is it not time to concede that religion is mere semantics sustained by ignorance and a few points in each nation’s GDP? It’s an unnecessary industry. One more quirky book about it only reinforces that.

  • enaughton27

    Happy Easter, everybody! Like clockwork, here comes someone to crap on your parade! You know …Jesus wasn’t Godetc etc etcIt’s the crucifixion all over again. Everyone gets to take a swipe.No matter — Christ told his apostles that He was the Christ, and the voice of God said Christ was God’s son. Now, you can say that’s a bunch of bunk or just confabulation. But if you do, please be sure to throw out the stuff in the Gospels you like as well.You can set your watch by how the main stream media will try to dump on Christianity every Christmas and Easter.

  • njoebott

    As I re-read the column and the comments posted here, I wonder how many of you are able (or even willing) to recognize the true power of Christ and His Church here on earth. This point is especially for those who, inevitably, bring up the regrettable past of the Church when trying to make the point that religion is evil based on the acts of some of its adherents. Time and time again Christ’s Church has brought good to humankind throughout the world: Over 1000 Catholic-run universities, over 5800 Catholic-run hospitals, over 8000 Catholic-run orphanages, about 14000 homes for the elderly, and almost another 75000 missionary institutions. (These numbers don’t reflect the other, and just as important, Christian denomination led support organizations) These organizations are sustainable not because of just the moral teachings of a mere man named Jesus 2000 years ago, but rather because there was a true-man and true-GOD who was resurrected from the dead…this is the basis of Christianity and Christ’s Church. A Christian believes either Jesus was truly God because of His resurrection from the dead OR he was a lunatic and / or liar. Many readers here will point to the latter I imagine. I challenge any one here to point to the exact dogma, doctrine, or theological point that explicitly states that it was OK to perpetuate the evils of the past that so many call on when trying to invalidate Christianity.To follow-up on BMXPAYNE’s comment: you are darn right that the Pope has an agenda…to proclaim Christ’s teachings through his Church. That is his mandate; one that he has held since becoming a priest many many years ago. It is not hidden. The Pope is for Christ and the truths behind His teachings. A teaching that is made legitimate because He is God. What mandate or responsibility is Mr. Weyler trying to fulfill? Other than one for personal advancement and gain.

  • coloradodog

    Jesus tells followers that spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion. Looking at the hatred, intolerance and just plain meanness of of modern “Christian” religions makes one ask the question: “What the devil happened?”

  • US-conscience

    Colorado dog wrote “Jesus tells followers that spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion. “I appreciate your view, but what Jesus and the Bible teaches is that Grace comes from God alone, leading one to repentance and faith and the fruit of that is acts of compassion – of which the ultimate act of compassion is preaching the Gospel: which is God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in Justice, you have broken Gods moral laws and are guilty and are storing up wrath for the day of wrath. You are an enemy of God in your mind through wicked works. But God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Jesus said “I am the truth, the life and the way, No man comes to the Father but by me.” Therefor – turn from your sins and put your faith for forgivenss in Jesus.

  • coloradodog

    ohhhh gaaaaaah boooogaaaaah!I would be trembling in fear at this moment but I don’t by your twisted belief in a god of “love” who fries his babies in hell.

  • arosscpa

    He is risen! Alleluia!This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

  • vineycb1

    I was born a Hindu, although I am not much of a one. I grew up to be an agnostic and got along in life without a god (or God) – I am 70 now and see no reason to reconsider. I insist on my absolute freedom of religious beliefs and stand for similar right of everyone else.

  • bostonbrahmin

    Some years ago in Boston, I was a regular visitor of “Tin Tin bufet”, an all you can eat place for 5.99. There was regular American fare as well as more exotic dishes, breakfast cereal and even ice-cream to choose from.Almost all Religion are like “Tin Tin buffet”s of the spiritual needs. There are deep moral stories for people so inclined. There is fire and brimstone for all those who seek it. There are farces, even a hint of sex. All this is because the needs of people vary according to their social, economic ..or cultural backgounds. The religions have evolved to solve issues that were critical to certain times in history, or even to accomodate people from different geographical locations. All of this is a work in progress.Works like this column, that seek to find the “true” begining of Christianity, is like trying to find the core of the onion by discarding the outer layers. It is all fine and good, and there are people who would probably get a thrill out of it, but the complex totallity that is Christianity of today, that is the real issue in hand.