by Valerie Tarico
We know less than you might think about the lives of Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammed, and most other religious “founders.”
Author David Fitzgerald is a history buff whose primary fascination is the early history of religion. When he researched the origins of Christianity, he was astounded to discover how little evidence we have for Jesus as a historical person. The least fantastical stories about the life of Jesus are found in the four New Testament gospels, but the four gospels that made it into the New Testament—and others that did not—were written generations after any historical Jesus rabbi would have lived. They contradict each other and contain miraculous events that in any other context we would simply call magic, mythology, or fairy tales. These events echo “tropes” that were common in the folklore of the region, like the idea of a woman impregnated by a god, or talking animals, or transmutation (one substance turning into another), or magical healings, or a person returning from the dead, or being/becoming a deity.
The historical record is so frayed, and so stitched together with obvious myth and legend, that Fitzgerald began wondering whether the man, Jesus, had ever actually existed. He soon discovered he was not alone. Were the stories about Jesus mythologized history (meaning that stories of a real person had mythic elements added over time—like Davie Crockett killing a bear when he was only three)? Or were they historicized mythology (meaning that legends of a mythic personage had historical details added as the stories were retold)? Ancient writings offer us plenty of both. Alexander the Great performed miracles. The three wise men of the Christmas story received names and biographies during the Middle Ages.
For generations now, academic Bible scholars have been gradually transferring bits of the gospel stories out of the History bucket and into the Mythology bucket. As inquiry tools have become more advanced, what we “know” about any historical Jesus has been shrinking. The vast majority of relevant experts do think that a real person lies at the heart of the stories—somewhere. If you want to understand why, read or listen to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. But either way, we can be confident that biblical portraits of Jesus offer little clarity about whoever he may have been. The form of the gospels, their contents, internal contradictions and most likely dates of writing suggest that they are almost wholly the stuff of legend.
That’s OK says Fitzgerald. As several scholars have pointed out, we don’t need to know who Jesus was or even whether he existed in order to explain the emergence of Christianity. There are, as it turns out, patterns in how religions emerge, whether or not the iconic founder was a single flesh-and-blood person. These patterns have to do with cultural and technological evolution, which will be highlighted in Part 2 of this series.
But one key piece of the pattern is this: Most major religions have founders who are wrapped in layers and layers of obvious mythology—to the point that little remains when the myths are peeled away. Christianity is far from unique when it comes to sketchy evidence about an ostensible founder who is now heralded as a prophet, god or demi-god. For centuries—or even millennia—religious teachings have pointed to great individuals, prophets, demi-gods, or supernatural beings as the source of divine revelation. But looking closely at these claims can be rather like holding cotton candy in the rain.
As Fitzgerald began to write and speak publicly about his doubts regarding Jesus, he was surprised to be contacted by Buddhists and former Muslims who informed him that they were having similar debates in their respective circles—arguments over whether the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, or the Prophet Muhammad, actually existed! Even if these larger-than-life figures did once exist in the flesh, we know remarkably little about their lives.