Exposing myth of Christmas an entry to broader truth? For the ready, sure. If not, another reason to call us crazy
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History is the academic field to answer with evidence who did what, when, where, and provide contextual facts to construct analyses for the subjective question of why. One paradox of Christmas and Christianity is despite American reliance on historical tools to understand every other aspect of life, most people who say their religion is important to them have never examined the vast professional historical work concerning Jesus. A second paradox is that although the history shows a different view of Jesus than people like to believe, none of the history may matter. A final paradox is how unknown the striking similarity of the story of Jesus to other ancient myths related to astronomy and the winter solstice is among Christians.
First, let’s consider a conservative and brief summary of the historicity of Jesus. More detailed analyses are broadly available; Jesus is arguably the most studied individual among historians. As a teacher of history, my sources are varied over 30 years of study, with my recommended best source as Dr. Bart Erhman, author of over 20 books on this topic, including two bestsellers. The details you are about to read can be confirmed in conservative sources of encyclopedic and text history. However, my experience in teaching the following information is that the comprehensive view of the facts might illicit a very different view of Christianity than what most people believe.
If we consider sources within 100 years of Jesus’ death figured from the rule of Pontius Pilote, we have Christian sources about Jesus from the Gospels in order of dates of appearance: Mark (~60-70), Matthew, Luke (both ~80-90), John (90-100). We should also consider the letters of Paul (~48-68) and the Book of Revelation. Non-Christian sources include historians Josephus, Tacitus, and Roman Governor Pliny the Younger.
The 4 Gospels, Paul, and Revelation:
There are many early Christian writings that are excluded from the New Testament; our first understanding is that these four had the votes among people in authority to create a single religious text. The authors of the Gospels are anonymous; written “according to,” a common technique among authors of the time. Jesus’ followers spoke Aramaic and were in all probability illiterate. The four Gospels are all written in educated Greek. Given the almost universal illiteracy, the stories that eventually were written 30 to 70 years after the fact were passed orally from the geographic location of modern Israel hundreds of miles. The obvious challenges of accuracy are accentuated by the four stories also being quite different when considered individually and compared. Their origination is probably four separate locations in the Roman Empire.
In historical analysis, earlier sources are usually more accurate. The Book of Mark’s Jesus predicts the coming of the expected Jewish figure, “the Son of Man” as an imminent event that people should prepare for. Paul discusses the imminence of the end-time in their lifetime. Jesus studied from John the Baptist, an apocalypticist speaking of the end of time at hand. In the last story, John’s Jesus, the theme is entirely different: Jesus is the Son of God himself, not a person pointing to an imminent event of God. Details also have apparently irreconcilable differences: John states Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, and Mark states it was the day after.
The Book of Revelation has mostly historical agreement as written by the same author as John. It is among a genre of apocalyptic books of the time that have similar format of taking a tour and explaining approaching cataclysmic events. Two versions of text exist with the “beast” as numbers 666 and 616, both Hebrew numeric values of two variations of the name of Nero, nemesis of early Christians and the emperor at the start of the First Jewish-Roman War of 67-73. The symbolism of seven hills is an exact common description of Rome. The events in the book are stated to take place shortly in the near future.
Non-Christian sources: Josephus, Tacitus, and Roman Governor Pliny the Younger all refer to Jesus. Josephus’ passage to Jesus’ divinity is strongly argued as a later rewrite because of Josephus being Jewish, early Christian writers all failing to mention this important corroboration from a Roman historian, and the passage having a different measurable style in syntax and vocabulary as the rest of his text. Tacitus wrote that Jesus was executed and his followers were suffering from superstition. Pliny the Younger wrote of testing alleged Christians to praise the Roman Gods and emperor.
Paradox #1: how serious are Christians to apply professional historical tools to understand Jesus? As mentioned, this conservative summary of centuries of academic historical analysis is usually news to most Americans. It is often rejected in favor of religious belief. Given most American’s universal appreciation of history as our best tool to understand the past, their rejection of history in an area of life many claim as their single most important is paradoxical.
Although people are welcome to interpret the evidence as they will, most historians lean to the earlier version of Mark that Jesus was carrying on an apocalyptic message from John the Baptist that was then carried forward by Paul and finally communicated in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation. The execution of Jesus during a major holiday overseen by Roman governance for preaching that the world was ruled by evil and would end is supported by historical record of similar executions, including under Pontius Pilote.
History is full of subjective speculation to approach the question of “why,” but a time of war with Rome over their occupation would seem ripe for an apocalyptic story of the high being brought low by a messenger from God. As years passed from the end of the Jewish War with Rome in 73, an apocalyptic story written to happen in their lifetimes that failed to come true would have to be reinterpreted.
Paradox #2: Does history even matter in faith? Again, this is brief. Faith answers fundamental questions we cannot test and replicate in science. The existence of God and his disposition is one. A deist believes/has faith in God. An atheist does not. An agnostic finds no way to demonstrate an answer to the question of God with replicable data. One can be agnostic while also having belief or disbelief in God: either an agnostic deist or an agnostic atheist.
Taking the most common philosophical/religious/spiritual choice: if one has faith in a loving God that has creation managed with justice, there is no need to fear anything. If people embrace Jesus’ alleged words to love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your spirit; and to love your neighbor as yourself, the power of this active engagement with life, others and self would make the details of Jesus’ existence meaningless. Perhaps this observation of the power of applied faith explains why people attracted to religion either avoid or do not consider the details of the religious history with the same importance they study the history of a favorite sports team, nation, or other important person.
Paradox #3: Christianity’s similarity to ancient myths: why is this news to most Americans? Zeitgeist, a 2007 documentary, is below, having ~100 million views worldwide. Its first part compares Christianity to myths, astronomy, and the winter solstice. The video is fast-paced, obviously popular in its format, and walks viewers through the comparisons. The transcript is here; it succinctly explains the comparisons. This first part of three that addresses this topic is about 30 minutes.