Jesus of Nazareth

c.4 - c.30)

Bust of Jesus, Leicester Secular Hall, photo Dave Ray

There is no consensus among modern historians as to whether Jesus of Nazareth actually lived, or is purely a mythical character like King Arthur or Robin Hood. There is certainly a lack of contemporary evidence and the stories in later accounts like the four canonical gospels attributed to his disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or others attributed to Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas, contain many of the characteristics of supernatural myth associated with stories of earlier god-men.

According to the gospel of Matthew he said: "You have heard others say that thou shalt love thy neighbour, but I say unto you, thou shalt love thine enemy also." This "turning the other cheek" is often taken to be the central ethical teaching of Christianity, but is clearly difficult to follow through, and is open to various interpretations. Humanists would urge a more realistic view of negiotiating with your enemy and making peace where possible but not at all costs.

A bust of Jesus is one of the five on the front of Leicester's Secular Hall. It now seems odd that a bust of the founding figure of the Christian religion should appear on a building dedicated to secularism. A partial explanation of this choice is that in the mid-nineteenth century two books by German theologians had appeared which for the first time treated the life of Jesus and his teachings purely in human terms, devoid of the supernatural. These were The Life of Jesus (1835) by David Friedrich Strauss and The Essence of Christianity (1841) by Ludwig Feuerbach. These books were translated into English (1846, 1854) by Mary Ann Evans, who later wrote as George Eliot. She was prominent among the freethinkers of the time, and of course she knew G. J. Holyoake the founder of Secularism, and like him came from the midlands.

[The image shown here is from a print of a photo of the bust taken by Dave Ray, a printer and member of Leicester Secular Society.]

Strauss and Feuerbach on Jesus

The following comments on these two books are from Kathryn Hughes: George Eliot: The Last Victorian (Fourth Estate 1999).

"Although the title of the work was The Life of Jesus, it is the subtitle – Critically Examined – which provides the key to Strauss's methodology. He takes each episode in the life of Jesus, as told in the four Gospels, and shows how it 'may be considered not as the expression of a fact, but as the product of an idea of his earliest followers'. Steeped in the Jewish tradition of the returning Messiah, Jesus's disciples shaped their understanding of their master's life to fit inherited expectations." [Hughes p.98]

"Feuerbach's ... The Essence of Christianity ... was an attempt to salvage the spirit of Christianity in an intellectual landscape for ever changed by Strauss. If the Bible was no longer a literal account of faith, then what was left? Feuerbach suggested that religion was a psychological necessity for man, who projected the best of himself upon God and then proceeded to worship his own magnificence. Far from resulting in an arid solipsism, Feuerbach's Christianity was a warm and generous humanism, which saw acts of love ... as the building blocks of faith ..." [Hughes p.205]

Did a real Jesus exist?

There are no accounts of Jesus in the surviving records of contemporary historians and commentators. There is a brief mention in Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote around the year 90, although the surviving manuscript of his Jewish Antiquities is a much later copy, and Christian writers had certainly altered the text. Josephus mentions John the Baptist, and the stoning to death of 'the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name'. There are three brief references to 'Christus' or 'Chrestus' in Roman writings from 110 - 120 of Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Suetonius.

Links to sources concerning the evidence:

Evidence that Jesus Never Existed
The Myth of the Historical Jesus
The Jesus Puzzle
Origins of Christian Mythology by S. Acharya
Historical Jesus Theories
Jesus the Pretend Christ
The Historical Evidence for Jesus
Jesus Never Existed
Did a Historical Jesus Exist?