The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith are two different persons with two different stories. When we try to re-conciliate the first we can do irreparable damage to the second, if we are not careful. Jesus or Josuah (that is the same name) means Saviour, and it is the Christian belief that one of the many men who were known under that name was the Saviour, that he was the incarnation of God, being born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem to save the world of its sins. Although he revealed his true identity only to a small number of followers, the Saviour told the world how to live. The price to pay to save the people from the consequences of their sins was his own painful and humiliating death on the cross. To reveal his triumph over sin and death Jesus rose again, three days later, revealing himself to his friends before ascending to Heaven where he sits at the right of God. At the end of the world he will come back to decide who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. This, in short, is the Christian faith, to be taken as told, without asking question of any sort, and without putting any doubt on its historical accuracy as told in the Bible. The Gospel according to Luke dates Jesus’ birth at the time when Caesar Augustus ordered a census in all the Roman Empire, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria, and Herod King of Judea. This would seem to set the story at a well-defined period. If we brush up our History we discover that Herod died in 4 BC, that Quirinius was not Governor of Syria during the reign of Herod, and that Augustus did not request any census! However Flavius Josephus tells us that there was a census in Judea in 6 AD.
In the same way there is no trace in the Gospels that Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is a myth too. Moreover the historical Jesus was not, in all probability, born in Bethlehem, but in Galilee, where he grew up. We must admit that tradition has much more appeal that the historical facts could have. The sacred communion that derives from the Last Supper, as we know it, does not stand historical research either. Christians have always claimed that Jesus invented Eucharisty. This is an important claim as it means that Jesus invented Christianity and founded the Christian Church. However, if we look at the first Christian documents, Paul’s Letters, they have a different set of beliefs about Jesus. He was writing for the Gentile, or semi-Gentile, audiences from Corinth, Thessalonica and Rome. He believed that by dying on the cross Jesus became a new Passover Lamb. In the same way that the Jews commemorate their deliverance from Egypt by killing and eating lambs, the Christians commemorate their deliverance from sin eating the body and blood of Jesus represented symbolically by bread and wine. Paul adds, too, that this new Christian Passover tradition goes back to the night when Jesus was betrayed. If we remember that Paul was writing about 20 years after Christ’s death, we can assume that he knew the truth. The four Gospels agree that Jesus died at the feast of the Passover after inviting his closest friends for a Last Supper. The first three Gospels say that the Eucharist was created during, or after, the Jewish Passover meal. If this is the case, it is difficult to believe that the Jews left their most sacred traditional feast to arrest, process, and execute Jesus. The fourth Gospel tells us that the meal took place well before the Passover. If it was not a Passover meal then the institution of the Eucharist must be put in doubt; this is the main contradiction between religious and historical truth. Even if we believe that Jesus wanted to create the Christian religion as we know it, we still would have difficulty to believe that he instituted Eucharist at Passover time as Paul, and the Gospels, say. If we remember that Eucharist is at the heart of the Christian religion, it is not a small thing to even think that it has no connection with Jesus of Nazareth.
It is probably true that a man called Jesus created some disturbance in the Temple, over-throwing the tables of the money changers. This happened in a city, Jerusalem, where the Romans, and even the Sanhedrin, always feared an uprising of the people. Both sides wanted Jesus arrested and sent to trial, although we do not know how it happened.
The Gospels blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. This is due to the fact that Christianity started as a Jewish heresy that led to quarrels between the traditional Jews and the early Christians. However, persecution of dissident groups within Jewry is historically unknown in Jewish history. It is an invention of the early Christians that they were persecuted by the Jews, and from this grew the story that Jesus was persecuted for his religious beliefs. All Jesus’ friends admitted that they escaped when he was arrested and, if only for this reason, they did not witness an eventual trial by the Jews. The trial before Pilate is more probable since the Romans were afraid of any trouble-maker. He would not have been interested in Jesus’ religious philosophy, but the mere mention of “Kingdom” and “Empire” would have touched his political nerve.
Josephus, the Roman historian, tells us a similar story that happened in 62 AD, some 32 years after Jesus’ death and four years before the first major Jewish uprising that lead to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Another prophet also called Jesus, the son of Ananias, caused some disturbances during the Feast of Tabernacle. He was duly flogged but he went on preaching the doom of the city. The religious Jewish authorities handed him to the Roman Governor and Albinus, the Procurator, had him flayed to the bone, but Jesus went on preaching and the Romans let him free having decided that he was mad. Jesus Christ, the son of Joseph, behaved the same way 30 years before but he was crucified. Nobody in the Palestine of that time could have imagined that this Jesus who died on the cross would be known as the emblem of a new religion. This image of Jesus dying on the cross is the strongest clash between the mythological Christ of religion and the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
The mythological Christ, the second person of the Trinity, was born in a stable, instituted the Christian Eucharist, and founded the Catholic Church. There is no need to explain Him, the New Testament, which was written between around 50 and 100 AD for his disciples and the official faith, do that and no discussion is allowed. To throw some light on the historical Jesus we must also refer to the New Testament and admit that very little is known with certainty. We must also bear in mind that the Gospels are not history books. They were written by some early believers who wrote what they believed, or wanted to be taken as the truth. For instance, Matthew believed, on the base of Micah’s predictions in the Old Testament, that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem and so, he wrote that Jesus was born in this town, although it is not very probable from a historical point of view. It is fairly impossible to know what is historically true in the Gospels, and what is Tradition. Mark, who believed that Jesus came to admit the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God, says somewhere that Jesus thought that the Gentiles were “dogs” to whom he had nothing to say. It is among these obvious contradictions that the Gospels have to be analized to sift the historical truth from the myth.
The search for the historical Jesus started when the unbelievers put in doubt the divinity of Christ. The first historians were hampered by prejudice as were their Christian predecessors. All of us, believers and non-believers, have their own a-priori image of Jesus. We should always remember that the only Jesus available to us is the Jesus described in the New Testament. The Christian Orthodox do not dare to take into consideration the results of the recent research on the New Testament. The modernists take these researches into consideration but, in the end, they say that religion and religious practices are more important that knowledge, even if they recognise, in opposition with the Orthodox, that the New testament is mythology.
It is difficult to believe to-day, as it was for a Jew at the time of Jesus, that a first-century holy man could think that he was the second person of the Trinity. The New Testament does not say anywhere that even Jesus thought so, or preached it. Jesus was a kind of Galilean “Hasid” or Holy Man, an heir of the prophetic tradition, who had a great knowledge of the relationship between man and God, and a healer. He was probably born in Galilee in 4 BC and he died in Judea in about 30 AD. He wrote no book and we do not know what he looked like, if he was married or not, even if it is probable that he was knowing the habit of the time. It is more probable too that it was Paul who “invented” the Christian religion. (18)