Jesus probably didn't teach Torah in the Temple or travel through Asia

Scholars Richard Carrier and Reza Aslan talk about the facts behind Jesus Christ's life story. Photo: Jesus statue/ AP

OCALA, Fla., December 23, 2013 — Most people in the United States observe Christmas in one way or another. For most Americans, it carries religious significance. 

For others, Christmas brings a spirit of festivity, a warm light in the winter season. 

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Regardless of how you celebrate Christmas, its history is interesting. For Christians, it is a high holy day second only to Easter. According to New Testament history, that is the day on which Jesus Christ was born. He is the Nazarene carpenter who billions of people the world over accept as not just God’s son, but their personal savior.

Dr. Richard Carrier is a freethinker who authored, among other works, “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He has devoted much of his life’s work to understanding the empirical nature of Jesus’s story. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Carrier has unorthodox views about Jesus — namely that the man did not exist and is a religiously-inspired myth.

Whatever the case might be, not much is known about Jesus’s life between the time he was born and when he visited Jerusalem’s Temple at age twelve. Why is this?

SEE RELATED: Jesus Christ’s nativity story is probably false, experts say

“It was a common (although not universal) tradition in antiquity not to narrate the childhoods of demigods and heroes,” says Dr. Carrier. “There was usually no reason to make up material for that, and there probably was no authentic material to use.”

In recent months, a new book has stirred much debate, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” Its author, University of California, Riverside Associate Professor Reza Aslan, believes that Jesus walked the Earth. 

His emphasis on Jesus’s role as a sociopolitical revolutionary has contributed new ideas to our national dialogue.

Dr. Aslan says that “absolutely nothing is known about Jesus’ life until his baptism by John. Everything before then is pure speculation. The story of the twelve-year-old Jesus teaching the Pharisees about the Torah is one that few historians accept as historical. Jesus was, after all, a poor Galilean peasant. 

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“Like approximately 95 percent of his fellow Jews, he could neither read nor write, let alone engage in a Torah debate with scholars of the law. It should also be mentioned that the passage from the Isaiah scroll that Jesus presumably reads in the synagogue doesn’t actually exist. It is in fact a pastiche made up of parts of Isaiah 61:1, a little bit of Isaiah 58:6, and the first half of Isaiah 61:2. We can however make some educated guesses about what kind of childhood a poor day laborer from Nazareth would have had. 

“In my book, I suggest that right up to the day he launched his ministry as an itinerant preacher, Jesus would have spent most of his days laboring as woodworker/builder in the wealthy, cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris, just an hour walk from Nazareth, which Herod Antipas was building from the ground up as the seat of his tetrarchy. 

“That experience would have not only allowed Jesus to mingle with the city’s Hellenized and Romanized population, it would have given him a first-hand experience of the rapidly expanding divide in his time between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor, a topic that would become the backbone of his preaching.”

Some say that, during the years between Jesus speaking in the Temple and his Nazarene ministry work, he travelled throughout Asia. What can be said about this idea?

“I see no reason to believe it,” Dr. Carrier states. “That tradition only first appears many centuries after Christianity began, and is not supported in any early accounts.” 

Dr. Aslan explains that “(i)f the gospels are right in calling Jesus a tekton, or woodworker/builder, that would have placed him at the very bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder in his time. It is extremely unlikely that a poor, uneducated, Galilean peasant like Jesus would have even heard of India or China, let alone have had the ability to travel there and study with a guru.”

Let’s skip ahead to Jesus’s work as a social reformer-slash-prophet, which probably took place around the time he was thirty. Are there any ironclad historical facts associated with his forty days in the desert to the Last Supper?

“No,” declares Dr. Carrier. “I’m a bit out of the mainstream in concluding that Jesus probably never existed as a historical man. I make the case for that in my upcoming book [“On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt”] which is the first peer reviewed book by a major academic press to propose such a thing. 

“But even if I’m wrong about that, we still can’t establish any facts about Jesus with any kind of certainty, except at most that he was executed by someone for some alleged crime, and said or did something that led some people to believe he was a messiah. Everything else stands at some deeper level of vexing uncertainty.”

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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