Inventing Jesus

Thursday, June 3, AD 2010

Ross Douthat has a good post on his NY Times blog responding to Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on the search for “the historical Jesus”.

James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any [emphasis mine — RD], occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.

The whole problem with two centuries worth of historical Jesus scholarship is summed up in those seven words: “As well attested a tradition as any.” Because obviously if you don’t mind a little supernaturalism with your history, a story about Jesus being a Roman soldier’s bastard that dates from the second century — and late in the second century, at that — is dramatically less “well attested” than the well-known tradition (perhaps you’ve heard of it) that Jesus was born of a virgin married to Joseph the carpenter, which dates from the 70s or 80s A.D. at the latest, when the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were composed. Bracket the question of miracles, and there’s really no comparison: Giving the Roman soldier story equal weight with the accounts in Matthew and Luke is like saying that a tale about Abraham Lincoln that first surfaced in the 1970s has just as much credibility as a story that dates to the 1890s (and is associated with eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s life).

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5 Responses to Inventing Jesus

  • I’m not holding my breath for the “New Yorker” hit piece on the historical Muhammed.

  • Good quote and good subject — it’s easily one of my favorites (which I think might be obvious).

  • People invent their own gods, so why not invent some history while they’re at it? 🙂

  • This of course all comes from the anti-Christian writer Celsus. Go to the link below to read all about it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius_Iulius_Abdes_Pantera

    This recycling of a hostile Jewish slur against Jesus, was of course something unknown at the time of Jesus because it was invented after the fact as Christianity converted many Jewish congregations, and ill-will became the norm between the two faiths.

    The Gospels relate many slurs against Jesus, including the charge that he was possessed by demons, so our earliest source materials do mention what adversaries were saying, without a hint of this being mentioned. Tacitus, a pagan Roman senator who mentions Jesus in his writings circa 118 AD, says nothing of this.

  • Here is another “as well attested a tradition as any” (related by Cassius Dion through Edward Gibbon) that academics ought to take seriously: Simon Bar Kokba.

    “During Roman times the Jews were exceptionally intractable. They were unable to endure contact with others not of their race. They reacted with extreme vigor and obsession with ‘purity.’ They feared death less than the profanity of idolatry. They violently revolted when forced to pay taxes to idolaters.

    “The possibly mythic Zionist arch-hero Barchachebas –’Simon Bar Kokba’ – led an infamous messianic revolt against Rome during Emperor Hadrian’s reign – circa 135 AD. Humanity was shocked at the recital of the horrid cruelties they committed in Egypt, Cyrene, and Cyprus where they dwelt in treacherous “friendship” with the unsuspecting natives. They committed furious massacres: Cyrene – 220,000 dead; Cyprus – 240,000 dead, Egypt – uncounted dead. Mutilations and atrocities were recorded.” See Dion Cassius and Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.