Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

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by Neil Godfrey

Correction (27 Feb 2015): I should have given priority to Alernet's publication of Valerie Tarico's article. It was published on Alternet a day before it also appeared on her blog. 


Valerie Tarico last September ruffled a few feathers with her article on mythicism (see Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar) and then followed up with an article in The Humanist outlining the views of James McGrath, Raphael Lataster and yours truly. (See Savior? Shaman? Myth? Ink Blot? — Views of Lataster, McGrath and Godfrey).

Valerie’s most recent post is

Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong

It’s not about mythicism this time but it does link to four Vridar posts to illustrate some of her points.

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5 thoughts on “Nine “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong”

  1. One fact we know about Jesus that is probably wrong is that he was baptized by John The Baptist.

    There is no reason to think that a Gospel writer would not say something negative about Jesus, so that any portrayal of Jesus in a negative light must be historical. In the Mahabharata [Hindu scripture written around the same time as the Tanakh], the stories of the heroes are full of their foibles, mistakes, wrong doings and more. It is the same with the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek) — written close enough to a similar time. So the historical data shows ancient fiction and religious scripture is often written with imperfections and such to make the story believable, more interesting, relatable and more.

    And take the example of Jesus’ baptism by John The Baptist in the gospel of Mark. This is generally taken as historically sound material about Jesus because it passes the criteria of embarrassment, in that the early church would not want to make up a story about John baptizing the son of God, which is why later gospel writers changed the story.

    Now, just to take this example, there is no reason to think the story was embarrassing to Mark at all, even if later writers found it so. Mark may have just thought he was writing a beautiful story about the beginning of Jesus ministry where John The Baptist is passing the torch to Jesus, in the same way as in 2 Kings 2 where Elijah gives a double portion of his miracle working power to Elisha, making Elisha his successor and superior. Mark certainly seems to interpret John The Baptist in terms of Elijah. Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).

    Also, Mark probably didn’t have the high Christology of later writers, so there would be nothing embarrassing for Mark in John baptizing Jesus.

    For this example, then, there is no reason to think that the criteria of embarrassment does anything to contribute to the historicity of John The Baptist’s baptizing of Jesus in Mark. There is, therefore, no reason to think John The Baptist ever baptized Jesus.

  2. 1. “Elijah” passing the torch to “Elisha” & “one greater than Elisha” is here – e.g. miracles at Nain and of the loaves; an important comparison.

    2. Valerie Tarico’s fourth point concerns the physical appearance of Jesus.

    (i)The Turin shroud may be dismissed because, although its manufacture was extremely clever, it is a 2D artistic representation, back and front, of a 3D object, like a brass-rubbing; the scalp area is problematic, and there are anatomical oddities.

    (ii) “The pagan writer Celsus (c.150-215) asked ‘How can the Son of God have been such an ugly little man?’; and the Christian writer Origen (c.185-254)…accepts the description and quotes Isaiah 52ff…. Robert Eisler…put together a description of Jesus from Byzantine citations of a now-lost version of Josephus…three cubits tall, crooked or stooping, long-faced, long-nosed…continuous eyebrows, with scanty hair, looking older than his years, dark-skinned. Eisler added that this is the language of a police description…. Yet as Tertullian remarked, Jesus’ physical appearance may have partly prompted the barrage of mockery and insults which the Gospels so surprisingly preserve [e.g.] ‘Physician heal thyself!'” – Don Cupitt & Peter Armstrong, “Who Was Jesus” (BBC 1977) pp.27-28. “The apocryphal Acts of John says Jesus was a man of small stature and Jesus’s twin brother is described as small in the Syrian Acts of Thomas. If Luke 19.3 is to be taken literally Zacchaeus sought to see Jesus who he was, but could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature…it could mean Jesus was.” – Michael D. Magee,”The Hidden Jesus” (1997) p.96.

    1. Some of those descriptions are similar to the way Paul was described. I’ve seen different arguments: some saying that such features were appropriately comely for certain heroes and philosophers and others that the ugliness was a foil to their inner beauty. Will try to dig them out and post some details.

      1. A couple of points taken from canonical NT and the above interesting comments. There are no physical descriptions of Jesus in the canon, except that he was 30 years old when he began his ministry — but see Jn.8:57, where he is “not fifty” years old! (Is he even close?) What we have are very limited descriptions of clothing or feet: (fringed) cloak, coat, shirt, staff, sandals, or bare feet, possibly purse and staff (like a cynic) very little more. Most interesting of all (from Acts) Paul supposedly met Peter, who supposedly sat at J’s feet, wept on betraying him, loved him. And yet there is no record of any physical description of J by Peter to Paul, who would have been interested. This is unlike real experience. Second point, and I’m sure your readers all agree with this: the very notion of coming up with things like a “criterion of embarrassment” etc., the whole panoply of magical criteria used by NT scholars to convert their myth into a history, is so utterly ridiculous and transparent; nothing at all like what an ordinary historian would do to determine historicity; i.e., look for contemporary accounts, assess their degree of corroboration, and so on. Interesting comments from the readers, anyway.

        1. The “embarrassment criterion” is not necessarily applicable to a religion that emphasizes humility or self-abnegation, although “admission against interest” can work. Nor incidentally will “multiple attestation” or “explanatory scope and power” actually work with e.g. the Resurrection narratives (despite the best efforts of John Wenham).

          The description of Jesus: yes, some similarities with Paul. The adverse picture was possibly theology-driven, “suffering servant” &c. I realize I am writing here for readers who think there was an historical hole where I think Jesus of Nazareth fitted in, but there was a late rabbinical reference to Balaam the Lame. However, the inference from the gospel accounts is that Jesus had a commanding presence, a loud voice, and a longer stride than his disciples; “a son of David” could indicate distinctively fair or auburn hair. The Muslim tradition was that he had “white” skin. His failure to carry the execution stake and early expiry upon it may be the effect of preliminary scourging rather than necessarily a weak constitution. Have any of your readers familiar with NT Greek have any comment on the notion that Zacchaeus climbed the tree because Jesus was shorter than his surrounding companions, rather than that the eager observer was himself too small to see over their heads, but then who cares one way or another?

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