There’s a new book out, titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Amazon describes it as “a fascinating, provocative, and meticulously researched biography that challenges long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.” As I read that description, I was reminded of an article on CNN about atheists. As usual, they got it wrong (not surprising, it’s CNN), but that’s irrelevant right now. In the comments, however, several people asserted that Jesus didn’t exist.
Truth be told, outside of the Bible, there isn’t much evidence for the existence of Jesus and what little there is isn’t from his lifetime. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentioned Jesus twice in his Antiquities of the Jews (written 93-94 CE), most notably referring to the death of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”. Later, Roman senator and historian Tacitus made reference to Jesus, his execution and the early Christian church in his final work, Annals (around 116 CE). And, that’s about it. Considering the scarcity of secondary sources, the doubts about Jesus’ existence are understandable; from a historical standpoint anyway. But when someone says Jesus never existed, my response is “So what?”
I know that sounds strange coming from an avowed Christian confronted with the possibility that the man he’s following is basically an imaginary friend. I feel that way for two reasons: 1) some of the people who say he wasn’t real are just trying to get my goat. I spent 23 years with folks who raised getting someone’s goat to art form (firefighters), so you’ll have to do better than that to piss me off. And, 2) it really doesn’t matter if Jesus was real or not. The message he preached stands on its own.
I’m not talking about the message of Christianity, which seems to be “Join our club, follow our rules and pay your dues or you’ll burn in Hell”. No, I’m talking about the message the Bible says Jesus brought. There are many places you’ll find it, like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and its counterpart in Luke, the Sermon of the Plain. But, the most concise occurs in Mark (and Matthew and Luke, but Mark said it first), “…love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself“. Not to mention his last commandment in John 13:34, “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.”
There are theologians who would argue with that, saying the message to love others is too simple. But, is it really? Or, is the idea of loving others as the Gospels say Jesus did a radically inclusive way to live? Think about it, if you love God, you love God’s creation. And, God’s creation includes other people. Now, if you truly love other people, you won’t oppress them, injure or kill them, marginalize them, etc. And, you will make sure they have enough to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over their heads. You’ll make sure they can get a good education, earn a living wage and labor in safety. That’s a damn good message no matter where it comes from.
So, was Jesus real? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s not an argument worth having as far as I’m concerned.