Jesus and His Times
My post of yesterday about the “Dawkins’ delusion” has (alas) attracted some comments – most of them kind, a couple of them rather less kind – from agnostics and/or atheists.
Those of you who are acquainted with my moderation policy know that I do not allow my blog to be used as a platform for anti-Catholic activity of whatever kind. Still, if there are interesting comments which I think might help my Catholic reader to better understand the Catholic (or Christian) argument, I do not see why I should not go into the matter.
One of the arguments brought against the Christian argument – nay, Truth – for the existence of God is that:
1) Jesus probably never existed as a historical figure, and
2) If he did, his claims were in part founded on wisdom, and in part on delusion.
I will deal today with these claims. In time ( I want to write my blog, rather than being driven by others about what to write ), I will deal with other arguments I have read. Once again, this is a Catholic blog and not a place for debate, for which I ask those so inclined to look elsewhere. I am not the BBC, my time is limited, and my aim is to defend Catholicism, not to give a platform to its enemies or waste my life trying to explain Truth to those deaf to it (I’ll deal with that, one day, too).
This post, and the others to follow, are not meant for debate. They are only a starting point, an invitation to the sincere seeker to expand and deepen the Truth. Frankly, life’s too short for endless bickering. If anyone wants endless bickering, he is in the wrong place.
To the point.
The belief in Jesus did not spread in some region utterly separated – both in time and place – from the scene of His working on Earth. It may be easy to believe in extraterrestrials having landed in some strange mountain two thousand years ago; much more difficult it is to believe in extraterrestrials landing in Trafalgar Square yesterday afternoon. This new “cult” of the Christians began to spread immediately after Jesus’ death, among the very people who had seen him preaching, walking, eating, drinking, joking, healing. It stands to reason it is simply inconceivable the belief in one person who did not really exist could have spread among people – a rather small community, compared with today’s demographic situation – accustomed to know each other. To this, we must add the Jewish penchant – which we might call obsession – for genealogy, with a sort of “public record” (not written of course; but transmitted orally, like a vast part of the knowledge of the time, sacred as well as profane) of the ascendants of everyone. It would have been utterly impossible not only to deceive the local population into the belief about the existence of someone who did not, in reality, exist; but it would have been similarly impossible to deceive the locals among his descending from exactly those and those ancestors. A small community, obsessively attentive to these facts, would have taken away every credibility from whomever would have tried to “cheat” in this regard. It is a fallacy of modern societies to believe that such legends could be spread then, just because they could much more easily be spread now. In the society of the time, you just couldn’t create a legend of someone who was simply non-existent, and you couldn’t even create a false genealogy. Therefore, we can have no reasonable doubt Jesus was certainly born in Bethlehem, certainly from exactly those parents (one putative, as we know today); certainly moved to Egypt (as one couldn’t have created the “legend” of a year-long disappearance without losing face in front of all the locals, who would remember and say so); certainly grown up in Nazareth, & Co, & Co. The small discrepancies in the Gospels (normal in the oral transmission of wisdom) do not negate the validity of the general construct (which is why oral transmission worked so well for thousands of years).
In the same vein, in those relatively tightly knitted communities it would have been simply impossible to believe in Jesus just “by hearsay”. If there is a man going around and making extraordinary things – like, say, feeding the Five Thousand – these five thousand would allow to have first hand information about what had happened to a non indifferent part of the entire local population. It was not like London, were riots can put entire neighbourhood to war zones and I can only know it from the TV. A huge number of Jews had Jesus not further than a one or two days journey, knew people who knew him or knew him personally, could listen to him regularly in the synagogue, or preaching outside, or just see him strolling around, or eating or drinking, or at social ceremonies (marriages, for example, were big social gatherings). Reading the Gospels, it is plain to see how easy it was to get in contact with Jesus for those who wanted.
The XXI century man, thinking with the logic of the XXI century, asks “where the historical evidence is” (it is there, of course; it is even in Jewish sources, though you’ll have to make your own reasearch about that; but it is, certainly, sporadic). The wise man knows that without historical truth of the underlying facts (not only the physical existence of Jesus and His genealogy, but the facts and events linked to His work on this earth) Christianity would not have gone past the first house court and women’s gossip.
The contemporaries of Jesus knew this very well.The Jewish priests knew it very well, as they never tried to deny Jesus’ existence, not even in own writings or propaganda pamphlets which would then, no doubt, have come to us for self-evident reasons. The common populace knew it very well, as otherwise Christianity could never have spread in the very places where Jesus was told to have walked and talked and healed. And all the others knew it very well, as Christianity initially spread – even before the advent of the Gospels – outside of Judea and Galilee thank to the “authenticity check system” of the time: the transmission from trustworthy eye witnesses to others able to carry on the message with the same authority.
Obviously, legends can also spread very far (the poems of Homer are a wonderful example). But the difference is, that never did the Greek believe in the Truth of the legend they went around transmitting. They didn’t, because they knew there wasn’t any.
Nowadays, too many people make the mistake of believing that if someone wasn’t documented in writing it hasn’t existed, simply because written record is the way we transmit information. This thinking would have seemed most extraordinary, if not brainless, to the contemporaries of Jesus.
The next post will deal with the second part.
I will, of course, not write a book for the sceptical.
For those among the agnostics who may be interested, I suggest Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ, now available even for Kindle. A true masterpiece of Catholic apologetics in an easy to understand, easy to remember style.