The Salon article
9 things you think you know about Jesus that are probably wrong
The key words to the new piece up on Salon are these three, “that are probably wrong”. Probably wrong is not certainly wrong, and I have to wonder about the reasoning for placing this list online. Not that I have to wonder for long because the article will clearly reveal its bias. We’ll talk more about that a bit later.
First, the piece mixes in some credible probabilities with some fanciful ones. This is a good tactic to try to appear convincing. The more likely theories about Jesus on the list of 9 include Jesus probably being of short stature, having short hair, the Hebrew version of his name being Yeshua (Anglicized to Joshua), and the contestable nature of where he was born. Yet, even amongst these claims are mixed in opinions that are presented as facts.
To address these points fully, I will simply mirror the list and respond.
- Married, not single.
The debate about Jesus’s marital status seems to ebb and flow with the tides of sensationalist media. Claims are made that it would be unusual for a Jewish man at his time to not be married. Whether Jesus was married or not would in no way alter what he did and how he changed the world. However, there is no support for the view that he was married. Since there was nothing to prevent him being married, there is no reason why the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles should leave it out.
Now, the interesting, and telling, moment that comes in this first point on the Salon piece is that the “Gospel of Philip” is quoted as some kind of proof. This is amazing in the worst way. There is no context given for this statement. The “Gospel of Philip” is a text that was found in the Nag Hammadi cache. This collection of Gnostic sayings is dated roughly to the second half of the 3rd century, unlike the contents of the New Testament, which are dated to within decades of Jesus’s ministry.
The Gnostic Gospels are certainly interesting and give us a look at the various threads of belief that were active as the early Christian church came into being, but these are not reliable texts for making claims about Jesus. Why? Well, as with all texts, analyzing them for their historical context, content, and looking at who used them and when, reveals to us the degree of reliability. These are not a magical find that debunks Christianity or puts into question the orthodox teachings that are at the heart of the Christian faith.
So, returning to the original claim, I have to question what the real point of this first item in the list is. From here, it looks like this point was brought up to equate the Gnostic Gospels with the canonical scriptures.
Case in point:
“But a number of ancient texts, including the canonical New Testament, point to a special relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The Gospel of Phillip says, “[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.”
Do you note the juxtaposition of the statement “canonical New Testament” with the immediate following statement, “The Gospel of Philip”? These texts are not even in the same category, but the author cleverly tries to link them.
- Cropped Hair Not Long
The appearance of Jesus can be a fascinating study. We depict him much like the early Byzantine and early Roman mosaics do, with long hair. However, there are some early mosaics that show short hair. More than likely during the time, he would have had close-cropped hair and the longer sidelocks, payot, which we see today in Orthodox Jews. So, from some perspectives, his hair may have appeared long due that. Jesus also would have worn the various religious garb prescribed for Jewish men, especially given the number of times he taught in synagogues.
So, what’s the point of this item? At the end of the piece we can find this:
“During the 1960s, conservative Christians quoted this verse to express their disgust against the hippy movement and to label it anti-Christian.”
Great point! Out of all the 2,000 years of Christian history and the history of hair styling let’s end a discussion of Jesus’s hair with a comment about conservative Americans during one decade of history. The scholarship is astounding! Not only does this ignore the Christians in the hippie movement, but it also serves no purpose to the original point.
Look around today and we can see Christians who belong to every sort of fashion and hair subculture that exists within the United States. Go around the world and Christianity will look like the cultures of the people who practice it. That’s the beautiful thing about being a Christian.
- Hung on a pole, not necessarily a cross.
There is no proof for this. Again, the key word is “not necessarily a cross”. Throughout the Gospel accounts Jesus is described as being forced to carry the cross. It was a Roman practice to have the condemned bear the cross beam; the upright pole would already be in place.
John 19:17 ESV
And he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.
Luke 23:26 ESV
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.
Matthew 27:32 ESV
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.
Mark 15:21 ESV
And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
So, as you can guess, I will point out the very obvious real point of this third claim about Jesus. What does the author say?
“Early Christians may have centered on the vertical pole with a crossbeam because it echoed the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of life, or the Sumerian symbol for Tammuz, or because it simply was more artistically and symbolically distinctive than the alternatives.”
Here the author again makes an interesting juxtaposition, this time to equate Christianity with pre-Christian beliefs. However, the fact is that Christians were squeamish about the cross at first. It was associated with Christians in the 100s by Roman pagans who were against Christianity!
“However, the cross symbol was already associated with Christians in the 2nd century, as is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of that century or the beginning of the next, and by the fact that by the early 3rd century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον (the Lord’s sign) to mean the cross….” [Source]
If it isn’t clear at this point that the author has a limited grasp on history, it will only become clearer as we continue.
- Short, not tall.
This is a good bet, especially given that most people were not tall. Honestly, I have never considered the height of Jesus, nor thought he was portrayed as particularly tall in art or media. Perhaps this is because I studied history as a child, before even knowing about Jesus, and knew that people used to be shorter on average due to poor diets.
In any case, the real point of this item seems to be this:
“In ancient times they often were assigned divine parentage and miraculous births, and the idea that Jesus was uniquely divine has created a strong pull over time to depict him as taller than is likely.”
Here we have another wild tie-in that is another poor attempt at taking a big stab at Christian beliefs. At this point, can we expect anything less from this author?
- Born in a house, not a stable.
Many scholars think that Jesus could have been born in a cave stable or in the lower portion of a house, where people sheltered animals at night.
So, this is a well-known item that is a good fact to include. However, again, the real thrust of number 5 is the following:
“The miraculous birth story of Jesus is a late, maybe second-century addition to the Bible, and it contains many fascinating mythic elements and peculiarities.”
There is no textual evidence that the birth narratives are a 2nd century addition, hence the key word being “maybe”. There are modern scholars, however, who don’t think the birth narratives are historically factual; there are also modern scholars who do think the birth narrative is factual. This shouldn’t be surprising because there is a rich tradition of debate about the New Testament amongst scholars, just as there is debate about any historical document or event.
Here, the main point seems to be the use of the phrases “maybe second-century addition”, “mythic elements” and “peculiarities”.
- Named Joshua, not Jesus.
The Hebrew version of Jesus’s name is Yeshua, which in English is Joshua. Variations can include Jeshua, as well. This is not a surprising fact for most of the Christians that I know. Every Bible I have looked at mentions that Jesus is an Latin take on the Greek, Ἰησοῦς.
Underneath this heading we get one of the wildest moments of this entire article.
“Some scholars believe that the New Testament gospels are mostly historicized and updated retellings of the more ancient Joshua story, with episodes interwoven from stories of Elisha and Elijah and Moses. A modern parallel can be found in the way Hollywood writers have reworked Shakespearean tropes and plot elements into dozens of modern movies (though for a very different purpose).”
Now, there are many problems with this, but the biggest issue is that the link to “some scholars” takes us to the author’s blog! In fact, many of her links go back to her own blog. This then links us to a so-called scholar by the name of Earl Doherty who claims to have a bachelor’s degree ancient history and classical languages.
The truth is that there is very little to no scholarship going on here.
- Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history.
The apostles number represents the 12 tribes of Israel. There were actually many more disciples than the 12 central followers. However, the inner circle of 12 does have symbolic meaning, related to the 12 tribes. Various writers have made some comparison between the 12 signs of the zodiac and the 12 tribes. The division of the zodiac into 12 signs was done by the Babylonians to go along with a 12 month calendar.
Lest, we get sidetracked into a discussion about astrology, let’s go back to the original article.
“Astrotheology or star worship preceded the Hebrew religion, and shaped both the Bible and Western religions more broadly. One might point to the 12 Olympian gods or 12 sons of Odin, or the 12 days of Christmas or 12 “legitimate” successors to the prophet Mohammed. But since the Gospels echo the story of Joshua, the 12 apostles most closely parallel the 12 tribes of Israel.”
While the author concedes the point about the 12 tribes, her thesis here is to get us thinking that worshiping the stars influenced the Bible and Western religion. As we have seen, like many of her links, this one goes back to her own website.
The Bible has a lot of beautiful imagery relating to the natural world; however, worship of the natural world is not part of this imagery. Instead, nature attests to God. Interestingly, even today you will hear people who give the existence of the stars and beauty of the earth for their belief in God. Most recently, Stephen King made such a comment. We could really delve into this topic, but we would get off track.
The most important point I want to make here is that throughout the books of the Bible the reality of our tendencies as humans is discussed. People are portrayed realistically, so the desire to worship beauty is acknowledged.
And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Deuteronomy 4:19
- Prophecies recalled, not foretold.
This is, to me, the strangest of the 9 claims because of the wording. Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies and this fulfillment was recorded in the New Testament. So, yes there is recall going on here. The witnesses, disciples, and the scholars of the day wrote about these.
Here’s how the author words it:
“Even people who aren’t too sure about the divinity of Jesus sometimes think that the way he fulfilled prophecies was a bit spooky, like the writings of Nostradamus. In reality, Scooby Doo could solve this one in a single episode with three pieces of information.”
Here the author tries her best to help those of us who may doubt Jesus’s divinity to relieve our cognitive dissonance. Do you sometimes think Jesus’s claims are convincing? Well too bad, because Velma and Scooby can help you forget about that in between commercial breaks! A study of the author’s word choices alone is revealing and fascinating. She again uses cute words such as “spooky” and brings up imagery of the cartoon detectives. Throughout her claims we can see her attempts to destabilize or disempower Christian beliefs.
To answer this one, I want to bring up the prophecies in relation to math. There have been a lot of interesting attempts to run the statistical probability of a single person fulfilling Messianic prophecy. Again, this is an area that is argued about by people on various sides. There are hundreds of Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, but what are the odds that one person would fulfill just 8 of these prophecies?
“The odds of any one man who lived from the [time] the prophecies were made until the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 10 to the seventeenth power.” [Source]
The Salon author ignores the context of these prophecies or even a wider discussion of them in favor of her own central thesis. Again, we see the author use her own definitions, when she claims.
“Second, “gospels” are a genre of devotional literature rather than objective histories, which means that the authors had every reason to shape their stories around earlier predictions.”
For whatever reasons people who argue against Christianity like to start with the assumption that the Gospels, and the New Testament, are not historical documents. This is a tidy way to interpret a document based on an assumption without doing any hard work.
First, what is an “objective history”? There is no such thing. Even if I make a list of ten people with their birth and death dates I have created a document that is not merely objective. The choice of the ten people is important. Listing out these people makes an argument that there is some reason to remember them. Including their birthdays makes a claim that for some reason when a person was born matters. There are many historical figures that we don’t even know the year they were born!
History is not an objective science, but we can know truth from history. We can determine what is more reliable, more likely, and what events actually took place. This important concept about the differing levels of reliability and likeliness are missing from many contemporary debates about history. Authors like this one at Salon want to place historical documents into a false binary, that they either objective history or not history. This ignores so many important facets of historical research that it renders the binary false and useless.
We can’t simply call the Gospels devotional literature and dismiss them. The Gospels make a claim to be historical accounts of the life of a single person and includes cultural details about the lives of those around him. Gospel means “Good News”, and they are, indeed, good news.
As I said, the Gospels do make claims to be eyewitness accounts. Given the portrayal of the disciples as sometimes bumbling and crude, they are clearly not massaged accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Given the first witness to the Resurrection being female at a time when women were not legally allowed to witness anything, the Gospels clearly do not try to hide potential problems. As I stated, one beautiful thing about the Jewish and Christian portions of the Bible is that they don’t sugar coat the range of human behavior. It’s an amazing feature of the entire Biblical canon. People are depicted realistically.
So, what of the historicity of the Gospels? The Gospel of Luke states:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. 1-4
I have to wonder if this author has even read the Gospels, as she doesn’t seem to be familiar with many basics.
As far as prophecies goes, Jesus quotes the Hebrew Scriptures frequently because he was a Jew. After the Resurrection, Jesus teaches the disciples what other parts of the Hebrew testament refer to him. The early Christian converts include many observant Jews who search the Hebrew Scriptures to determine if what the disciples are telling them is actually true. When they are convinced, they believe.
- Some Jesus quotes not from Jesus; others uncertain.
The author’s final point is related to what I wrote about in number 8. It basically boils down to the idea that we can’t know what Jesus said, so why bother.
“Which words are actually from Jesus? This question has been debated fiercely by everyone from third-century Catholic Councils to the 20th-century Jesus Seminar. Even Thomas Jefferson weighed in, but much remains unclear. The New Testament Gospels were written long after Jesus would have died, and no technology existed with which to record his teachings in real time, unless he wrote them down himself, which he didn’t.”
As we have seen, the Gospels do claim to contain reliable eyewitness accounts and reports. The Gospels are based on written materials. Scholars point out that one of the disciples, Matthew, was a tax collector. He would have known shorthand for his job, and it is possible that he could have taken down what Jesus was saying. Now, we are in the realm of possibility, but what we know for sure is that written records about Jesus’s life appear very quickly.
The author finishes the article with this:
“A good starting place might be a little more recognition that we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to think, and a lot of what we know for sure is probably wrong.”
I believe that I have shown that this statement is not only false, but naïve. We can know a lot about the Bible, Jesus, and Christian history. Certainly it’s a wise practice to come to a text with intellectual humility, but it is dangerously disingenuous to say “what we know for sure is probably wrong”. Christian claims stand up to rigorous intellectual curiosity, and we should question and learn more about why be believe the way we do. In two hours with my knowledge of the Bible, history, background with textual analysis thanks to my M.A. in literature, and the reading I have done, I can easily debunk and expose the intention behind the Salon article.
Christianity, at its core, is a belief that Jesus died for us to have a healed relationship with God and others.
The letter to the Corinthians the 15th chapter puts it elegantly as thus:
..the Anointed One, the Liberating King, died for our sins and was buried and raised from the dead on the third day. All this happened to fulfill the Scriptures; it was the perfect climax to God’s covenant story
What was the overall point of Valerie Tarico’s sloppy list of 9 claims? Well, I hate to break it to you but Valerie is a self-styled former evangelical with a book to sell. She has created her own belief system and even has a website that you can join to learn all about her personal system.
Given that, what do you think the point of her article was?