Let Nothing You Dismay

And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said, "All men will be sailors,
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken,
long before
The sky would open, forsaken,
almost human
--Leonard Cohen

So it's the time of year when people crowd into malls in a feeding frenzy of last-minute shopping. When colleagues who never see each other outside of work now pretend to like each other for the duration of the office party. When the annual family psychodrama is played out in millions of American living rooms. God rest ye merry, gentlemen . . .

Before it was renamed Christmas, December 25 was a pagan drinking festival. Now it's known as the birthday of the man who may have had more impact on the world than anyone else in history. Century after century, genocide has been committed in his name, and so have acts of mercy. People have been fed and clothed, and people have been tortured and murdered, all by people who invoke the name of Jesus Christ. Worldwide, Christian churches are big business.

He may be the only religious leader whose name is employed as an expletive. You don't hear people exclaim Buddha! when angry. They do use God as a cuss word, and Jesus is the only human being who gets the same status. Because, in the Western religious psyche, God and Christ are the same thing.

Many Christians have argued that, for evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, we need only consider that, 2,000 years after his death, his (or His) influence is so pervasive.

What many people don't know, however, is that there is almost no historical evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ ever actually existed.

The Bible says Jesus was becoming a very powerful figure during his lifetime, which is why it was necessary for the self-serving religious leaders to kill him. And yet there are no clear references to him outside of the Gospels. Although he is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus, the reference is vague and unspecific and seems to be based on hearsay.

The most compelling documentation outside of the Gospels comes from the Jewish historian Josephus. Born around A.D. 38, he obviously never met Jesus. But he wrote of "Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one might call him a man. For he was one who accomplished surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as are eager for novelties. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon an indictment brought by the principal men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him from the very first did not cease to be attached to him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the holy prophets had foretold this and myriads of other marvels concerning him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has to this day still not disappeared."

Although it can be argued that, less than a century after Jesus' death, people would know whether his existence was fact or fiction, several scholars believe that this passage was not written by Josephus, but inserted later by a Christian copyist. This theory seems even likelier considering that Josephus wasn't a Christian.

But, if Jesus was a fictional character invented by early Christians, it would seem logical that those Jews hostile to Christianity would have spread the news of his fictitiousness. They didn't. Since what they did instead was attack his legitimacy, they probably had no reason to doubt his historical existence.

Other circumstantial evidence in support of Jesus' physical existence is unlikely to please orthodox Christians. Some 20th-century scholars have placed part of Jesus' life in India. Since this is not mentioned in any of the Gospels (which are unreliable and probably not written by the people whose names they bear), it has never been given credence by orthodox churches. But there seems to be some evidence that a man with Jesus' name (Yeshua or Joshua in Semitic languages) was a religious master in northern India in the first century.

Jesus may or may not have traveled to India. But someone must have. Because much of the narrative found in the Bible (in both Old and New Testaments) is to be found in Hinduism, whose primary scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, predates Christianity by 3,000 years.

According to the Mahabarata, the epic narrative that takes in the Bhagavad Gita, the king is told by a prophet that a man will be born who will destroy the destroyers. Being one of the destroyers himself, the king isn't happy about this. The prophet tells him what day the child will be born, so the king orders that all male children born on that day are to be killed. In order to save her child, Krishna's mother puts him in a basket and floats him away on a river, entrusting Vishnu (God) to take care of him. Krishna is found by one of the king's aides, and is raised to be a prince.

The king's purge of newborns is similar to the story of the birth of Jesus, and identical to the Old Testament story of Moses. Either we believe in a collective mythology, or we have to recognize a link between Hindu and Christian myths.

It's likely that Jesus would have had the wherewithal to travel to India, because, if we examine what the Gospels recount, it's clear that he wasn't a poor carpenter. The wedding at which he turned water into wine is clearly a high-society wedding. What would a poor carpenter be doing there? More controversially, it can be reasonably assumed that the wedding was his own. When the wine runs out, Mary goes to her son and tells him, "They have no wine." Historians agree that, at such a wedding, it would be the duty of the bridegroom to provide the wine. This would explain why, even though he tells Mary, "My hour has not yet come," he gives in and works his first miracle.

There has been speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers, and if Jesus was married, then it was most probably to her, as she was the first to visit his tomb after his crucifixion, a duty that would be expected of a spouse.

Some contemporary Christian scholars recognize the need to reexamine the Gospels. Organizations like the Jesus Seminar and the Historical Jesus Movement exist to examine theological questions from a modern, scientific perspective. But fundamentalists remain blinkered. In 1995, the Biola University and Talbot School of Theology hosted the "Jesus Under Fire Conference," which purported to "inform and instruct Christians regarding the claims being made by a team of liberal scholars called the Jesus Seminar. They have launched a nationwide effort to undermine people's confidence in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' sayings and deeds. Just a few of their claims are: Jesus Christ was not born of a virgin, He was not God and He did not rise from the dead. These falsehoods are being promulgated . . . in major news media around the country."

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether a man named Jesus was born in a manger, became famous and got nailed to a cross 2,000 years ago. In particular, it shouldn't matter to Christians. What matters is the teachings. If Jesus was really the Messiah, and was capable of working miracles, then there being no reliable, detailed record of his life and his personality is significant--because he must have chosen to have it be that way. Both the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nat Hahn have written books pointing out that Jesus' teachings don't differ widely from those of the Buddha or other teachers. What's sad about the way Christianity has evolved is that, amidst the politics of spiritual capitalism, the most neglected aspect of Christ is also the most important--not who he was, but what he taught.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]