"The sacrificial animal does not share the spectators' ideas about sacrifice, but one has never let it have its say." - Friedrich Nietzsche
It is now, for those who live according to a Western, Christian calendar, almost Easter. Easter is the time when Christians remember the death of Jesus of Nazareth (on Good Friday) and his resurrection (on Easter Sunday). The source documents for these occasions are, in documentary terms, the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is a startling fact, should one read these gospels side by side in parallel rather than in linear fashion from Matthew through to John, that by far the most agreements between them in terms of timing and a coincidence of their story-telling is precisely in the last four or five days of Jesus' life before he is apparently crucified. For the majority of what is often called the ministry of Jesus these same gospels are often at variance about what took place and even when or if it took place. After Jesus' reported resurrection we get differing tales in differing places in ways that seem not to match up but to contradict. But for Jesus' last few days the gospels are at their most parallel.
A question that immediately comes to mind for any intelligent reader is if this is because here we have a historical bedrock of indisputable events. Christian believers, especially the more dogmatic types, will tell you that it is all true - even where the accounts themselves naturally give contradictory reports. Of course, there is a whole apologetic army of people more than ready to tell you that things that can't all be true actually are. If you'd like an example compare John's gospel with the other three. They don't agree about which day Jesus died on. They can't all be right and so that must introduce a lack of factuality into the gospel record in one way or another. Perhaps you think that three witnesses beat out the one. But then you need to remember that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a documentary source. So its not really 3 against 1. Its 1 against 1. In fact, when you start to think about it, who says that any of these books or their writers knew anything about what happened? Is the apparent history in them anchored to, and confirmed by, a non-Christian recitation of events? Well, no, it isn't because for the rest of the world of the time Jesus of Nazareth was singularly unimportant. No non-Christians were writing down reports of what happened to him. The only history we have, if we have any, is a believer's history.
So here in the gospels we have a story that is claimed to be of universal significance. It involves a person dying and then, three days later if we count inclusively, rising again from the dead which, in the myth it is a part of, means that, somehow, we human beings have the means to escape the sin and corruption of creation that we were formerly a part of by means of this activity accomplished through Jesus. It sounds, frankly, incredible. I first heard this myth when I was ten years old and I remember thinking how good it would be if it was true. Primarily, this was because I didn't feel particularly loved and didn't have lots of people who I thought might be that interested in me. But this God fella seemed mightily concerned with everyone and that was good enough for me. When I was ten I also remember that I read Homer's The Odyssey for the first time. I was a big fan of Odysseus because he was the smart one unlike Heracles and Achilles who used their strength. I felt that I was the smart one amongst my peers and so I naturally oriented myself to the king from Ithaca. In The Odyssey all manner of events occur. They blind a Cyclops, Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon no less, they meet the witch Circe, they must avoid perils such as the Sirens, whose songs send sailors mad. The Odyssey is a very engaging fantasy tale much like the other stories of Greek heroes such as the Twelve Labours of Heracles, for example, or The Iliad, which tells of the siege of Troy and its capture via the Trojan Horse (an idea Odysseus had!).
I am now almost four decades older than my ten year old self and I have read many such stories since. In an academic phase of my life I studied the gospels, and the history of Jesus, if there was such a thing, in more depth. I came to the conclusion that it was literature just as much as The Odyssey or the Twelve Labours of Heracles. Heracles too, of course, is claimed to be the son of a god, a god no less than Zeus, in fact. I began to ask why anyone believes the gospels as history and I noted that most of those who do come to it reading it as history as a presupposition but without any demonstration. If I read the Twelve Labours of Heracles I might come to the section where Heracles fights the Hydra. When he chops off one of its heads two grow back in its place. Hold on, is this a true story or is it mere entertainment? How would I be able to establish the difference? Just because someone writes something in a book does this therefore mean that I am expected to believe it happened and is true? This is the conundrum that faces us with the Christian gospels for, in reality, we are being asked to believe things just because someone wrote them down and, being charitable, we may concede that they did so sincerely. But so what?
You will labour in vain to find non-Christian corroboration of the vast majority of the story of Jesus as presented in the gospels of the New Testament. The bald truth is that almost nobody except those who would be called Christians ever cared enough about this character to write about him. It was only they who wrote narratives about him at anything like a time contemporaneous with his supposed life. It was only they who ever bothered to preserve sayings they would claim were his actual words. But when we look at the gospels, products of such activity, we find them claiming to know things any intelligent reader would wonder how they could have known. For example, as I write it is Maundy Thursday, the night of Jesus' imagined arrest when, so the gospels tell us, all his followers ran away. But this doesn't stop the gospels reporting what happened to Jesus after he had been arrested. Who told these writers what happened? How do they know what the Jewish leaders said inside a closed building where no followers of Jesus would have been accepted or inside a Roman court before the Governor? I ask these questions not because I have some need to discredit the documents of Christianity but simply because such questions are apparent from any sane reading of these texts. The Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan has a nifty saying about events like these in the gospels. He says "Those who knew (what happened) didn't care and those who cared didn't know." Which makes a lot of sense to this reader. But it does come with the corollary that these stories must be pious fictions.
I have written two decent sized books about Jesus which total 160,000 words when added together. Writing them involved a fair amount of hard work. One thing I highlighted in them is that Jesus himself never wrote a single word. Or, if we are being pedantic, no documentation that has ever been discovered is arguably from the hand of the person Jesus. In fact, most of it, including the Christian gospels of the New Testament, is written by people who, in writing, do so because they believe things about him. I find it quite natural at this point to wonder what he would say about that and to wonder what, if anything, he would say about the books that have been circulated in his name since that time. I think by analogy to modern biographies. These may be written with or without the agreement of their subject and sometimes they provoke a reaction from the one being written about. My point is that someone else's view about a person may not be the same as that person's views about themselves. It also means we must question any words put in their mouths and especially their meaning. Historical claims require historical verification. But how much historical verification of the story of Jesus have YOU ever done? Does it seem to you, even from the gospels, that Jesus intended to found a religion in his name? It honestly doesn't to me. Yet one was anyway and Jesus was claimed as the source. Unfortunately, we do not have any words from him on this that are not put there by those who would entirely agree with the idea.
The stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus in general I do not believe. I do not believe the stories of his death because I wonder how they could ever be verified as true and I wonder how these people who claim to know what they know actually know it. This is important because, as said above, it is important we don't just believe things because someone bothered to write them down. Especially in our current age, the age of "fake news," this would be regarded as madness. Historical claims require historical verification and in the case of the (hi)story of Jesus this is unlikely to be anything that is ever available. (This is something many biblical scholars will never admit to. They are basically swapping opinions because actual hard evidence is lacking and likely always will be.) So what we are left with is an unverifiable account that is there as literature because it is a meaningful story and as part of a greater myth. When it comes to the resurrection we are up against even greater problems. Resurrection, really? I will simply note here that I'm hardly the first person to note that when the gospels talk about the resurrection of Jesus and its immediate aftermath their former parallel nature before his death disappears. Each go their own way and say different things happened, different people saw different things, some even "didn't believe". I think this scattergun approach to these events is right and I think it points to one thing: Jesus never rose from the dead as a man with a body walking out of a tomb at a definitive point in time. If he rose anywhere it was in the thoughts and dreams and hopes of any followers he had left. Christianity exists today so something must be responsible for it. But it wasn't Jesus because a much more likely historical outcome, one in line with standard Roman crucifixion practices, was that no one who cared about Jesus ever knew where he was buried in the first place. But how would they know, they all ran away according to the gospels themselves!
In closing let me say that I have no problem with anyone's religious faith. Many in today's world do but I have as much disgust for dogmatic, egotistical atheists as I do for the most apologetic Christian or anyone else. People, in my view, may believe anything "live enough to tempt their will," in the words of William James. But any faith that is a closed box, that is not open to question, is, in my view, not much of a faith. Of course, if you want to practice it in silence and in private then I won't disturb you. But if that faith is public in nature and universal in its claims then that becomes a different matter. Questions about Jesus, for example, are public and open to question by anyone as matters of fact not just as cherished private beliefs. You cannot believe Jesus said this or that or meant something else if, in fact, it never occurred. You can say Jesus "rose from the dead" and lives today in your heart through faith but if it turns out that no one ever knew where the tomb was or even, as some still maintain, that there never even was a Jesus to begin with, then these are relevant questions for anyone interested in them and not just believers. Faith is how many human beings attempt to bridge the divide between themselves as limited, conditioned beings and that which is beyond them, the ineffable, the endless and the unconditioned. I don't for myself find anything wrong with this. But it not necessarily just a private matter. Just as Wittgenstein argued there is no such thing as a private language I wonder if there can ever be such a thing as a private faith either.