What I Think Happened in Galilee

It’s pretty common to hear atheists (and skeptics in general) talk about the fact that the burden of proof always rests with the person making the positive statement. In the case of religion, this means that it’s not up to me to prove that God doesn’t exist (proof of a negative usually being a futile exercise); rather, a theist would have to prove that God does exist in order to get my attention. In particular, an atheist is under no obligation to provide the natural explanation for any particular miraculous story; it is more than enough to point out that there is some natural explanation that is more plausible than the supernatural one. Natural explanations tend to have a head start in the plausibility race, so usually this isn’t too hard.

But sometimes it’s fun to speculate.

Back when I was a Christian (getting up to a year and a half ago), one of the most important aspects of what I believed was that Jesus’ life (and death, and subsequent re-life) happened pretty much as the gospels describe it. Here’s a brief sample of the reasons I had for believing that: there is a lot of manuscript evidence that the gospels we have today are pretty much as they were written; they were written by eyewitnesses, many of whom were persecuted or killed for their faith; they were written in a short period after Jesus’ death, before myths would have time to develop; and so on. There were also a few arguments on more specific topics, which would be familiar to a lot of people, such as the Lunatic/Liar/Lord trilemma, and the “who stole the body” attempt to prove the resurrection by elimination.

It goes without saying that I don’t believe any of this as an atheist. The evidence as I summarised it is, at best, exaggerated, and I could go on at length about it. But this means that I have to believe that there’s some other, natural, explanation for how someone came to write about these things in what we now call the four gospels. As mentioned above, I’m under no obligation to explain exactly how it happened (which is handy, because I can’t); but I do have to believe that a natural explanation exists. And given that I do believe that an explanation exists, I don’t think I’d ever be able to resist trying on a few hypothetical examples.

What follows is my favourite hypothetical. I’ve never heard anyone else propose it exactly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has. I also wouldn’t be surprised to find evidence that makes it pretty unlikely, although I’m not aware of any at the moment. I’m making no attempt to push it as being true or even well-researched, it’s just the idea that happens to appeal to me the most.

A handful of scholars (more than Christians generally like to admit) have seriously proposed that Jesus never existed at all. A good essay on this is Choking on the Camel at Ebon Musings, which uses material from Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle. This may well be the case; my personal gut feeling is that it’s an overreaction to Christian apologists’ frequent statements that nobody doubts that Jesus was a real person.

I do find myself drawn to one of the ideas they mention, that Christianity borrowed heavily from an earlier sect that believed in a messiah, but one whose death and resurrection occurred in the spiritual realm, who was never incarnated as a physical person. This sort of idea wouldn’t have been out of place among the mystical religions of first-century Palestine. However, I find it hard to accept that this story of Jesus came first, since the stories of Jesus’ earthly activities seem to appear earlier than the more mystical parts of the gospels. (Mark, the earliest gospel, has gives most down-to-earth account of Jesus’ ministry, while John, the latest, gives the most mystical and gnostic-ish. Also, most of the agreement between the synoptic gospels comes before Jesus’ death; the accounts of his resurrection share very little text, suggesting that they came later.)

So here’s my theory.

A mystical sect of Judaism, which you could probably call a form of gnosticism, had developed by the early first century AD. This sect believed that the messiah was a spiritual being, probably that he was the son of God, and that he had died as a redemptive sacrifice for mankind’s sins. Salvation was attained through this knowledge, which was known only to this sect (i.e. gnosis), and quite possibly by a ritual baptism to participate in his death and spiritual rebirth.

Meanwhile, a (fully human) religious figure by the name of Jesus was causing a bit of a stir in and around Galilee. His main message was that the rituals and legalism of Pharisaic Judaism were a waste of time perpetuated by a corrupt hierarchy, and that people could show their devotion better by loving their neighbour, helping the poor and sick, and not living an extravagant life. This brought him into an increasingly bitter fight with the Pharisees until they ended up getting him executed.

Most of Jesus’ followers dispersed and got on with their lives. However, a handful of them happened to stumble across the aforementioned gnostic sect. After a bit of a discussion with some of its members, they realised that there was at least one point that they had in common – their central figure had died. In their grief-stricken, and quite natural, desire to find some meaning in the loss of their leader, they latched onto the idea that Jesus’ death might have been intended, and that Jesus was the messiah of this sect.

This is where the manipulations of Jesus’ story began. They asked around to see whether anyone had looked inside the tomb after he died; presumably they hadn’t, as opening a tomb after a few days would be a smelly, and quite possibly religiously unclean, affair. After a few retellings, this developed into the myth that they had found the tomb empty. The fact that Jesus was human was glossed over in a few ways – some believed that he was an apparition (an early Christian “heresy” called docetism); some believed that he was born human, and received the spirit of God at his baptism (a form of which survives in the gospels); some believed that his father was really God, and his mother was a virgin when he was born (helped by the Septuagint’s questionable translation of Isaiah 7:14).

This also led to one of the more baffling aspects of Jesus as described in the gospels. Before his death, especially in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is strangely reluctant to say anything specific about his identity as the messiah or as the son of God, or about his death or resurrection; when he does, his disciples frequently fail to understand him, and at any rate he often warns them not to tell anyone else. As a Christian, I found it hard to explain why he would behave like this. However, it makes perfect sense if Jesus never said these things at all, and the comments in the gospels were someone’s attempt to remember whether he said anything about being the messiah while he was alive, even if they didn’t understand it at the time. Also, Jesus often refuses to be identified as a spiritual or political leader – which would at least require an explanation if he was the messiah or the son of God, but makes perfect sense if he was opposed to religious authority and saw himself as nothing special.

But my favourite part of this theory is that it explains what has been one of the most divisive forces in Christian history – the fact that the New Testament contains two conflicting messages, which can be boiled down to two words: faith and works.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? - James 2:14, ESV

The New Testament can essentially be split into two volumes, sometimes on the basis of entire books. The synoptic gospels, particularly Mark, and the epistle of James, among others, focus on putting compassion and morality above meaningless religious rituals and observance of arcane and arbitrary laws. In these, hellfire is kept for hypocrisy, selfishness, and leading others astray. But the gospel of John and the epistle to the Hebrews, along with many of Paul’s letters, are much more spiritual and theological, and talk about Christ’s divinity as a point of central importance. Salvation is achieved and hellfire avoided purely through accepting Christ’s sacrifice, and the ultimate goal is a direct, personal, eternal relationship with God.

Under my theory, these two themes were originally completely different stories. Of course, some parts of the New Testament attempt to reconcile the two – they were, after all, written after the two ideas merged. But the division is most obvious in the books that go to one extreme or the other.

Many Christians will be familiar with the tension between faith and works. Roughly equal quantities of blood and ink have been spilled over the issue. Many individuals and congregations, my old church among them, have experienced what is often described as a “pendulum” that swings between one and the other. (It’s an odd pendulum, in that it seems to move alternately around two equilibrium points instead of converging on one. I like to think of it more as a Lorenz attractor.) Of course, any Christian with any background in this will be able to offer a way to reconcile the two views; but they must also agree that, in practice, it does seem like you’re continually choosing one or the other, even if you try to alternate between them in equal proportions.

Anyway, just to repeat myself, I’m not actually claiming with any force that my version of the story is accurate. To me, it seems to explain a lot, but I haven’t done enough research to say that with any kind of authority. However, my main point is that, to me at least, this explanation is much more plausible than the theory that the gospels are actually true – it produces two individually consistent messages instead of one inconsistent one, and it does so without relying on supernatural events or beings.

So if you’re going to argue with me, don’t start by saying why my explanation is wrong. Start by saying why your explanation makes more sense.


4 Comments so far

  1. Brian March 2nd, 2007 4:40 am

    Well, first let me share with you that I am a Christian minister and I think what you have written here is actually good food for thought. Your argument is well-reasoned and raises some important issues that historical Jesus scholars have considered as well. Your basic assertion, as I see it, is that much of what we have in the gospels are the thoughts, feeling, and experiences of the early Christian community trying to make sense out of Jesus. So some of what we have is history remembered and some (perhaps a lot) is entirely the product of those telling the story. I will say that, for me, this does not diminish the truths that I might find in scripture. I enjoyed reading your essay.

  2. Shishberg March 2nd, 2007 12:24 pm


    Hi, and thanks for your comment.

    I was going to reply, but the more I think about it, the more it deserves its own post. Stay tuned. :)

  3. Lia Lazarescu February 14th, 2008 8:55 am


  4. Shishberg February 14th, 2008 8:56 am

    That’s nice.

    So, Lia, assuming you’re serious (and I realise that’s a big assumption)… what is your “prove” that it is so?

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