OCALA, Fla., December 25, 2013 — Today is the day! Christmas has arrived at long last.
Christians are celebrating what is for them a high holy day second only to Easter. From the third century AD, Christians have celebrated this is as Jesus Christ’s birthday. He is the Nazarene carpenter who over two billion people the world over accept as not just God’s son, but as their personal savior.
Even those who are not Christian, but who live in Christian-dominated societies, celebrat Christmas as a secular holiday. One needn’t pray to believe in Santa Claus, drink egg nog or decorate a tree.
This is a period of hope, joy, togetherness, and renewal — not to mention lavish parties and expensive gifts.
Historians have tried to track the life of Jesus in a more careful way than provided by the traditional accounts. New ways of looking at traditional evidence and careful research have provided some insights into Jesus’ life, but these insights are controversial.
Dr. Richard Carrier has authored several works on Jesus, among them, “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Dr. Carrier has unorthodox views about Jesus, specifically that the man did not exist and is a religiously-inspired myth.
Easter is the holiest Christian celebration. This takes place on a Sunday, when Jesus is claimed to have risen from the dead. Crucifixion was a common method of capital punishment in Jesus’s day, and this is how he is said to have died. How did the story of his resurrection after three days in a tomb arise, though?
“We don’t have any documentation or reports about any of this until many decades after the fact, and then only from devout believers,” Dr. Carrier explains. “The first time we see any account at all is half a century later. Before that, we learn only that, according to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, after Jesus died, some of his followers interpreted the scriptures as predicting he would be raised from the dead the third day after his death. They then had visions of him claiming to have been raised as predicted, which confirmed to Christians that the general resurrection had begun (1 Corinthians 15:16-24) and that the world would very soon end.
“So subsequent Christians continued to reinterpret and reimagine the whole sequence of events in order to hold on to their belief in the face of its disconfirmation, as so many other apocalyptic sects and cults have done throughout the millennia.
“The Gospels are an example of that process. It is with them that a story first gets invented of Jesus being buried in a tomb later found empty. Mark explains why this story had never been heard before by saying its only witnesses never told anyone (Mark 16:8).
“That Mark invented the tale is further proved by the fact that Mark’s story provoked Jewish accusations that the Christians stole the body, which Matthew then had to invent another story to answer, insisting the tomb was guarded (Matthew 28). Mark has no knowledge of the tomb being guarded, or of anyone even expecting a resurrection claim and thus needing a guard, or of any accusation of theft.
“This means Mark is the first to tell any tale of an empty tomb, because it had not yet generated a response that required adding guards to the story. Otherwise it is not believable that such a story had circulated for forty years before Mark wrote and no one thought to respond to it by suggesting the obvious: that the body was stolen; and then only thought of this after Mark claimed there was an empty tomb.”
Dr. Reza Aslan works at the University of California, Riverside as an associate professor of creative writing. He believes that Jesus was real. Aslan is best known for his nonfiction book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” His emphasis on Jesus’s role as a sociopolitical revolutionary has contributed new ideas to our national dialogue.
“Crucifixion was an extremely common form of Roman punishment, specifically for crimes against the state: sedition, treason, rebellion, insurrection, etc. However, it is not technically correct to call it a form of capital punishment,” says Aslan. “Indeed, it was not unusual for Rome to first execute the criminal then crucify him.
“The purpose of crucifixion was to act as a deterrent against rebellion, which is why crucifixions were always carried out in public. It is also why the crucified were almost never buried. Because the entire point of the crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten the witnesses, the corpse would be left where it hung to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by the birds of prey.
“The gospels say that Jesus was spared this fate thanks to a wealthy Pharisee who bribed the Roman guards to have Jesus’ body taken down and placed in a tomb. Three days later, the tomb is empty.
“Although the first resurrection stories were not written until the 90s AD (there is no resurrection appearance in the first gospel, Mark, which originally ended with Mark 16:8), belief in the resurrection of Jesus was among the community’s first attestations of faith, perhaps dating to late 30s or early 40s. Why did the stories about the resurrection arise so much later than the belief in the resurrection?
“It is because the stories were specifically crafted to counter the charges of critics who denied the resurrection, who argued that Jesus’s followers saw nothing more than a ghost or a spirit, or who thought the disciples themselves stole Jesus’s body to make it appear as though he rose again.
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