Freethinking about Jesus the Nazarene
The ‘Messiah’ was nothing more than a deluded religious fanatic who arranged his own arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
The May 2000 issue of the Freethinker carried a critical review of my 1996 book about Jesus and the origin of Christianity (The Rise and Fall of Jesus).
Unfortunately, the reviewer, Jack Hastie, misunderstood the main point of the book: he thought that I was claiming that Jesus deliberately faked his own death. In addition, he thought that my thesis too speculative and even absurd and that I had “stepped outside” the field of my expertise (one could respond that he had certainly “stepped outside” the area of his expertise, which evidently was not in New Testament studies.)
I attribute the misunderstanding to careless reading and the assumption we all make that, because of our familiarity with the Gospels, we are all experts on the subject. This convinces publishers that nothing new can be said on the matter; some told me that my ideas “must be wrong”, but they did not explain why.
The problem of Jesus is basically historical, with associated problems in ancient languages and religions. But these skills are useless without some insight into the mind of Jesus himself.
Albert Schweitzer suggested that every life of Jesus remains a reconstruction on the basis of a more or less accurate insight into the nature of the dynamic self-consciousness of Jesus, and J Middleton Murray believed that Jesus can be known only through intuition. Even the historian needs to make intuitive guesses about the past. Camille Jullian wrote that historians should not avoid making conjectures when necessary to connect the rare details that remain of the past, although they should carefully distinguish between such conjectures and the data to be handled.
Following Schweitzer, this is what I did. After reading scores of “lives” of Jesus by liberal theologians and freethinkers, whose views and insights I recognise and record, I gained an insight that seems not to have occurred to other writers, even though some have glimpsed part of it.
What was that insight? To Christians, Jesus was (is?) the incarnation of God, sent to save the world from the consequences of their sins. To non-Christians, and even to many Christians, Jesus was a good but naive itinerant preacher who unaccountably fell foul of the authorities. To both groups of believers, Jesus’ life is a mystery, for one a mystical superstition and for the other a hodgepodge of confusing vignettes
However, one can construct a coherent and logical sequence of events that explain Jesus’ life by making some fundamental assumptions. These are (firstly) that, as Schweitzer insisted, Jesus can only be understood in his historical milieu, as an aspirant Messiah within the Jewish community in Judaea. Secondly, that Jesus was part of a movement with a plan that was connected with the Messianic aspiration and that this movement followed Pharisaic philosophy; ie that men must work to fulfil God’s will.
It also has to be assumed that the plan failed (Jesus did not become the Messiah) and that the Gospels are partly historical and partly propaganda for the Early Church. Contrary to claims otherwise, these two parts can mostly be distinguished because what suited the Early Church did not agree with history or with what is known of Jewish customs
One blatant example is the claim for the divinity, and hence the incarnation of Jesus. In Judaism, only God is divine and the Messiah is a thoroughly human character, God‘s viceroy. Jesus himself never claimed divinity. The other, even more blatant, is the attempt to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death when the evidence that he was tried and sentenced to death by the Romans is overwhelming (cruci?xion was a Roman, not a Jewish punishment). It is clear that the evangelists tried to tell a story that was undermined throughout by evidence of a quite different story.
The scenario that emerges from this evidence is that Jesus was a disciple and/or a close relative of John the Baptist and inherited from him the leadership of a small Gnostic sect (the Nazarenes) that had worked out, not only the details of the Kingdom of God, but how and when it was to appear. In particular the Nazarenes had plotted (from Scripture) the life of Messiah-ben-Joseph, the first of two Messiahs and one who had to suffer on behalf of his people.
Jesus became convinced that he was this Messiah and that he would become the second Messiah, the ultimate ruler of Israel. This explains the record in John of his enigmatic promise to return as new “Comforter”.
As a Pharisee, Jesus had to arrange events so that they fulfilled prophecy, even to the extent of arranging his own arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. I explain carefully how the Gospels reveal that Jesus arranged his whole life to fulfil what he saw as prophecy. Judas betrayed him only because it was a necessary part of the plan.
Jesus facilitated his own arrest knowing that he would be crucified but confident that he had the means to be “resurrected” afterwards. This means was opium, administered during the cruci?xion. He must have believed that this substance actually caused temporary death. In fact, as we now know, it can cause the appearance of death (coma), sufficient to convince a Roman centurion that Jesus was indeed dead. This permitted him to be removed from his cross after only a few hours and transferred to a nearby tomb (another part of the plan).
Evidently Jesus had intended that, after “resurrection”, he would gather an army in Galilee and march on Jerusalem to claim the throne of Israel as its Messiah. That would have thrown him into conflict with the might of Rome, but he thought his destiny more powerful than Caesar’s and that he would rule the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom was not in the sky; it was here on Earth.
But the plan failed. Mortally wounded on the cross, his body had to be removed from the tomb prematurely in order to avoid embarrassment. Unaware of the secret programme and kept in ignorance of Jesus’ death, the disciples continued to preach in his name and to proclaim an imminent Kingdom. They even thought that they saw him in Galilee, mistaking an old shepherd for their master.
Thus was a new religion born. Christianity is the product of Jesus’ failure and the blind obedience of the disciples. Jesus had no intention of founding the Church. Jesus was a deluded religious fanatic, a victim of Jewish fundamentalism. He had no greater insight or knowledge than anyone else and he had no message for the world, certainly not for the modern world or Gentiles.
An Edinburgh agent who read my MS or a synopsis of it, declared that it “lacks the sensationalism … which is sadly much sought after today”. What could be more sensational that claiming that Jesus planned to become world dictator? Or that he relied on a drug to do so, a drug whose derivatives are abused by so many today?
• This article first appeared in the March, 2010, edition of the Freethinker.