I am not a Christian. Nor am I follower of any other religion, or even a theist. For years, I have wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But I thought I had made my peace with being a non-believer in a culture whose origins were Christian, making myself tolerably familiar with the Bible and the history and philosophy of belief throughout European history.
Then, some years ago, I was blind-sided by a statement of the obvious.
Although I hadn’t been Christian since puberty, I had always thought that the most recent parts of the Bible had a historical background. Probably things hadn’t happened quite as described in the New Testament, but I assumed that the descriptions were roughly true. After all, the New Testament accounts mentioned historical figures like Pontius Pilatius and Herod Antipater.
So didn’t it follow that a historical Jesus had existed? Of course, he probably bore about the same relation to the stories as the historical King Arthur bore to the writings of Thomas Malory, but after you discarded the religion doctrine and traditions like the sacrificed god, there would be a core of truth.
Then, I read a book called The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. The book is poorly written, and has the obsessiveness that marks a crank, but it introduced me to the idea that the whole of Christianity was a neo-Platonic myth, most likely originating among the Jewish population of Alexandria that had started being taken literally.
I learned, too, that there were reasons to question external references to Christianity like those in Josephus, and that reputable references to Christianity did not occur until well into the second century of the common era. Even some of the references to the modern story of Christ in the later books of the New Testament were metrically suspect.
These ideas are not universally accepted. But the fact that they can be reasonably held at all shows how shaky the conventional views actually are. More importantly, they give reasons for some aspects of Christianity that I had never heard adequately explained, such as the neo-Platonism on the gospel of John, and some of the references to the Christ figure that seem strangely vague if they are supposed to be about a man who had lived. Although not proved, the ideas were at least plausible.
To my surprise, I found myself reacting as though I’d been tackled by someone I hadn’t seen. I suspect that belief in a historic Jesus is the last refuge of an agnostic or atheist who used to be a Christian, a minimal adjustment of their thought that allows them some continuity with their past and cultural history. Even in our disbelief, we cling to a sense that the stories of Christianity must have some degree of reliability. But, suddenly, even that minimum belief seemed questionable.
I realized, too, that I was angry. I’d been lied to, which always makes me self-righteously indignant, told false certainties were established fact. The fact that, on reflection, I realized that the liars had probably lied to themselves first did not make me any less angry.
If my reaction could be summarized in three words, those three words would have been: How dare they?
But the closer you look, the more dubious the founding legends of Judaeo-Christianity become. Despite the record keeping of the Egyptians, no evidence of anything remotely resembling the Exodus has ever been found. What evidence exists points to the Ancient Hebrews being offshoots of the Canaanites – locals rather than invaders. Similarly, no reference exists in any of the surrounding cultures of the empire of Saul, David, and Solomon. The few references to the kingdoms of ancient Israel that have been found suggest that, at best, for most of its history it was a satellite kingdom of the surrounding superpowers, a fact that should have been obvious from one look at a map.
Yet I remember seeing maps of Solomon’s empire when I was growing up, and other maps showing how the twelve tribes settled Palestine (in fact, look up Judea, and you can still find this map on Wikipedia). The maps, that are supposed to value accuracy, are works of fantasy, charting as certainties facts that are questionable and unsupported by the archaeological record. In fact, the more archeology that is done, the more the Biblical accounts look like fiction embellished with a few sprinkles of fact for verisimilitude.
Was anyone surprised when the James Ossuary, allegedly the container for the bones of Jesus’ brother, proved suspect? I wasn’t. It was exactly the same as every other effort to reconcile fact with the Bible: unproved, the product of wishful thinking at best, and of outright fraud at worst.
And when I consider that European culture is built on such foundations – well, don’t come trying to convert me is all that I can say. Because if you try, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do.