I’ve always been one to let curiosity get the best of me. On the playground as a child, I refused to use the space as it was intended the way other children did. I played on the roof, I played on the outside of the walls, I climbed up the support beams. I wasn’t inclined to be restricted by the ‘right’ way to interact with the space set out for me. This trend of individualism marked many important decisions in my life, from being an exchange student to Argentina, to where I decided to go after high school. Always interested in foreign languages, cultures, philosophy and religion, I eschewed the typical American campus experience, and went to study on the island of Malta, the Mediterranean island where St. Paul’s ship crashed on the way to Rome (thus Malta’s claim of being the very first converts to Christendom). After flirting with Art History, Latin and Greek, and European history, I settled on a dual major in Philosophy and Theology. The conflict between these two disciplines was the beginning of my interest (obsession) in ‘finding’ the real Jesus.
This interest did not arise out of some pre-conceived prejudice or animosity towards religion; in fact I had remained up until that point a lukewarm, if not sometimes overtly righteous Christian believer. However, certain discrepancies in my courses drew my curiosity towards alarming voids or gaps that no amount of reason could bridge, for which ‘faith’ was ultimately the only blindfold. While I was no stranger to the importance of faith, I was surprised to learn that the core of Christianity does not depend on faith in god, or heaven, or even Jesus – but rather on the historical person of Jesus Christ found in the gospels, an entity of tradition that is notoriously hard to pin down. I was taught that the Bible was historically inaccurate and written to express the beliefs o the community rather than their historical founder, and studied the controversies that had raged for centuries in the early church about such simple ideas like whether Jesus was human or divine; whether he had been born or crucified in the flesh or merely in spirit; and over his role, purpose and message – all of which continued to be debated. On the one hand, I attended Cristological lectures where priests expounded on the exact nature of Jesus’ physical composition (substance) and his relationship to the father and the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, in my philosophy classes I read Nietzsche, Kant, Camus, Shopenhower and Jung. I also found that most of Christ’s teachings were already present in the writings and traditions of Plato, Seneca, Philo of Alexandria, Pythagoras and others – before Jesus arrived on the scene.
At the same time, I discovered the perplexing parallels between biblical literature and ancient mythology.
Who was Jesus? I asked myself. How was he different from the other Jewish rebels of his time, or from the mythical figures he seemed to parallel?
I’ll admit, I was too curious. In matters of faith, there is a barrier that cannot be crossed. Somewhere in my studies, I began to doubt. I pushed, harder and harder, seeking evidence or proof that would support my faith. Where is the boundary? The foundations upon which my faith was built that would not crumble under an intense gaze? I found none. Instead, murmuring beneath the surface of a poorly cobbled ecclesiastical ‘history’, there was another story, difficult to comprehend at first but surprisingly easy to support: the figure of Jesus Christ had originally been a literary figure, which accidentally became viewed as a historical person by converts who had not received full instruction into the community. While the old theory of apostolic succession initiated by a historical founder was ferociously defended but inadequately evidenced, this new theory was silent; it drifted quietly, ignored by all, marginalized by the dialogue.
I was voracious in my excavation; my curiosity was insatiable. I traveled to Rome, then Egypt, and finally Israel. It is perhaps a great misfortune that the majority of Christians will never visit Jerusalem; it brings the entire story of Jesus’ ministry crashing down to earth, in a way that can be either jarring or edifying. I touched the wall of sorrows, I put my hand in the hole that held the cross, on the stone where his body was placed. I walked the path of the 14 stations of the cross. I did everything appropriate to a religious tourist. Later, in a museum in another part of Jerusalem, I learned that virtually no part of the modern city had existed during the time of Jesus Christ. The church had been built directly over a temple of Aphrodite that Emperor Constantine’s mother destroyed while searching for the true cross of Jesus (she found it, miraculous intact after several centuries). If Jesus had touched a wall, if there had been a rock, it wasn’t this wall or this rock. So closely reality recreates the projection of religious history it is nearly impossible to tell truth from fiction.
Never content with my level of knowledge and continuously spurred on by both the inadequacy of historical records and the absolute certainty of Christian believers, I began researching comparative mythology, world literature, and esoteric mysticism. I found that carefully preserved in both the Old and New Testaments were symbolic references and remnants of outside traditions.
My journey, however, ended in failure: the historical Jesus is not to be found – he is and has always been an article of faith, to be believed in without supporting evidence. This truth is further problematized by the fact that Jesus had much in common with other, pre-exiting pagan deities. This claim is often swept away by arguing that Jesus was historical and thus ‘different’ – but we can see that this argument is doomed to failure. (Is existence really an attribute worthy of distinction?)
Pursuing the historical Jesus with eyes wide open is like running into a cathedral with a stick of dynamite: soon the sculpted walls and polished pews crumble around you. If you survive the initial chaos, standing in the heaps of rubble, the true light of the sun will warm your skin for the first time. Then is the time to sift through pieces. Although you can no longer see the grand facade, the golden processions and the practiced rituals; at the same time you see deeper than ever before. You can see the mortar between the cracks, the file markings on the stones – in short the process of creation that went into the final product.
This metaphor holds true – it IS possible to find out what ‘really happened’, to explain the genesis of a religion – even one as complex as Christianity.
Derek Murphy is the author of Jesus Potter Harry Christ.