What's so special about Jesus Christ?

Scholars Dr. Richard Carrier and Dr. Reza Aslan share their thoughts on Jesus's enduring appeal. Photo: Piero della Francesca, "Resurrection"

OCALA, Fla., December 27, 2013 — What’s so special about Jesus Christ?

SEE RELATED: Jesus probably didn’t rise from the dead, experts say

Christmas has come and gone, just as it does every year. Now that Christmas is over with its hefty meals, parties, and religious services, the time has come to ask what the relevance of Jesus is.

Dr. Richard Carrier, author of “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” has devoted much of his life’s work to understanding the empirical nature of Jesus’s story. Carrier has unorthodox views about Jesus; according to him, Jesus did not exist and is a religiously-inspired myth.

Why, then, have billions of people found Jesus’s story compelling enough to consider him God’s son and their personal savior?

“The same reasons billions of people have found Mohammed’s story compelling enough to consider him God’s prophet and his testament the one true path to salvation,” says Carrier. “Which is the same reason millions have found Joseph Smith’s story compelling, or L. Ron Hubbard’s, or Buddha’s. In every case, it’s the result of cultural immersion or persuasion, which is ultimately a consequence of happenstance, and human ignorance and subservience to fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases.”

A new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” has provoked a great deal of controversy. 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 explains that Jesus’s life “is a compelling story. Whatever else you believe about Jesus — that he was the messiah, the Son of God, or God incarnate — the basic facts of his life make him worth knowing and following. 

“The Jesus of history was an illiterate, uneducated, extremely poor, pious peasant from the backwoods of Galilee who, despite all of this, formed a movement on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, the weak and the ill, the outcast and the marginalized, that was such a threat to the religious and political authorities of his time that he was hunted down like a criminal, arrested, tortured, and executed for sedition. 

“That seems like a man worth knowing, no matter what else he may have been. Indeed, the example that Jesus set in to how to address social injustice, how to confront the powers that be, how to reject the gatekeepers of salvation, is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.”

Generally speaking, how does the sociology of Jesus’s story relate to Christians now?

“Most Christians disregard the actual teachings attributed to Jesus,” says Carrier, “which demanded the total abandonment of all wealth and submission to a private communist society, the Christian community, which would take care of all needs communally (Matthew 6:24-34, 19:16-24; Luke 6:24; cf. Acts 4:32-35), abandon all violence even in self defense, not even for freedom, nor even so much as to fight a lawsuit (Matthew 5:33-48), never pray in public (Matthew 6:5-6), prefer to avoid or even disavow marriage and family (Matthew 19:9-12, 29; Mark 3:31-35, 10:29-30; Luke 14:26), and strictly obey Jewish Torah law (Matthew 5:18), while awaiting the end of the world.”

Despite what some might think, Christianity is not an anti-intellectual religion. Indeed, doctors, lawyers, academics and many others who work in the secular world at a high intellectual level on a daily basis remain devoted Christians. What is it about Jesus that they find attractive?

“The question assumes that there would naturally be conflict between educated, ‘secular’ people and Christian devotion,” says Aslan. “There is not. Nor must there be conflict between history and faith. The person of faith is interested in what is possible. The historian is interested in what is likely. 

“Is it possible that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem? Yes. Is it possible that King Herod massacred the first born Jews in Judea? Yes. Is it possible that Jesus read from a Torah scroll in a synagogue at age twelve? Yes. Are any of these stories likely? No. And all a historian can tell you is what is likely. The historian and the person of faith are engaged in two different modes of knowing, and there need not be a conflict between them.” 

What aspect of Jesus’s life and legacy convinced Carrier that he did not exist?

“The only attributes of the Gospels that clued me in to the possibility he didn’t exist are its many mythical elements, typical of other mythical heroes and demigods but much less commonly attributed to or written about real historical persons,” he tells. “But that alone wouldn’t be sufficiently convincing. 

“The silence of the historical record was also troubling, and combined with the former feature, doubly so. But even that wouldn’t suffice to be certain. The real deciding factor was Paul’s letters, in which I find no clear awareness that Jesus was ever anything other than a celestial being killed and raised by celestial powers and preaching and communicating through visions from heaven. 

“For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul only says people ever saw him after his resurrection … he makes no mention of anyone having seen him before that, much less traveled with him or tutored under him.”

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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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