The originator of Christianity. His year of birth is commonly believed to be 4-6 BCE, based on the accounts of the Christian gospels. He is regarded by some as GOD himself, or a chosen messenger of God, and by others as simply an extraordinary human being. This article will deal with the traditional views of Jesus and his teachings, followed by a discussion of the historicity of Jesus, and the views on him by theosophical writers.
The primary sources of information on his life are the four gospels of the New Testament, namely, those of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. The first three are called the synoptic gospels, since they recount the story from a common point of view. Scholars assume therefore that they they were derived from an unknown common source, sometimes referred to as “Q” (for quelle, or “source” in German). There are other apocryphal gospels that portray a different Jesus from those of the canonical ones.
Gospel Accounts. In the gospel accounts, Jesus was the son of Mary, who was visited by an angel who told her that she would conceive the Son of God by the Holy Ghost, and who will be named Jesus. While Joseph was not the real father, the Gospels of Luke and Matthew tried to show that Jesus was a descendant of David through Joseph. The two genealogies, however, do not agree with each other. Some scholars suggest that the genealogy given in Luke deals with the ancestors of Mary and not that of Joseph, but this has a weak basis. The Protevangelion of James, an apocryphal work, states that the father of Mary was Joachim.
Herod learned from the visiting Magi about the birth of Jesus who was to become King of the Jews. Alarmed by this, he ordered the killing of all infants in the area. (There is no independent record of this significant event, but it is to be noted that this story is a common myth among prophets and avatars, such as Krishna and Moses.) The family escaped to Egypt and nothing was reported of them (except in the apocryphal gospels such as Infancy Gospel of Thomas) till Jesus was a boy of twelve, where he impressed the scholars of the temple with his knowledge and wisdom. The gospels are silent on the whereabouts of Jesus for the next eighteen years. Many writers speculate that he traveled to the East. His next appearance in the Gospel was when he was baptized by John the Baptist, and a dove descended upon him. The Spirit then brought him to the wilderness where he successfully passed the temptations by Satan.
Jesus gathered twelve disciples, taught and performed miracles in the next three years. Perhaps the most significant statements among his teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount, where he gave not only the beatitudes but also laws that differed from the Old Testament. The message of Jesus is directed towards personal salvation. He exhorted people to undergo a change of heart (metanoia, which has been translated as “repent” but which literally means to go beyond the mind.) Many of his teachings marked a departure from existing Jewish laws and thinking, such as those of the Sabbath, vengeance, justice, and circumcision. For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:38-9). Similarly he contravened the Jewish law on the Sabbath. Jesus stated that “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matt 9:17) This was interpreted by the Gnostic Marcion as a repudiation of the Old Testament and Judaic law.
In teaching to the public, Jesus often spoke in parables. Asked why he does so, he enigmatically replied: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:11-12). This has given rise to the view that Jesus had two sets of teachings, one for the masses and one for the elect. Gnosticism is based on the tradition that there are secret teachings of Jesus.
The Pharisees and the Scribes were offended and threatened by his authoritative teachings. Through Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples of Jesus, they arranged for the arrest of Jesus. He was tried and crucified together with two thieves. On the third day after his death, his tomb was found empty. He was later seen by, and talked to, Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, after which he was reported to have bodily ascended and disappeared.
The Divinity of Jesus. The New Testament has conflicting statements on the divinity of Jesus and his full identity with the Father. In certain passages, he clearly states that he is not identical with the Father, such as “for the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28; see also Mt 24:36, Mt 36:29, Jn 8:45, Jn 16:15, etc.). And at other times, he identifies himself with the Father, such as “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:29; see also Jn 10:38, Jn 14:9).
The divinity of Jesus was the subject of a controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, with the views of Arius competing with those of Athanasius. The council decided in favor of Athanasius, which affirmed the full divine status of Jesus. This led to the political suppression of Arians, Gnostics and all those who disagreed with the council’s decision. Prior to this period, many of the Church leaders regarded Jesus not as God but as a man through which the Christos manifested.
Historicity of Jesus. The controversy about the historical existence of, and information about, Jesus dates back to the first few centuries of the common era when the accounts about Jesus’ life and teachings differed not only among the canonical and apocryphal books of the Bible, but between the Christian and Talmudic accounts. Up to the present time, many scholars such as G. A. Wells maintain the position that based on available evidence, the existence of Jesus is a myth.
As early as the second century CE, the early Church fathers and bishops already disagreed about the gospel accounts. Ireneaus (125-202), bishop of Lyons who defended the Church against heresies, writing in the year 180, contradicted the gospel accounts as to the time of death of Jesus. He stated that based on the testimony of the apostle John, Christ preached for ten or twenty years and died at the age of 50 or more (Against Heresies, Book II, chp. 22). Marcion, born in 110 CE, bishop of Sinope, likewise questioned the infancy accounts of the Gospels as well as the resurrection, and recompiled the New Testament by removing these accounts.
The gospel accounts themselves contain information that give reason for doubting their historical accuracy. For example, Jesus was supposed to have been born during the time of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. But Luke’s gospel adds that Caesar Augustus decreed a census of Palestine during the time that Quirinius was the governor of Syria. This census did not occur earlier than 6 CE, when Palestine came under Roman rule. Hence part of the gospel accounts must have been historically mistaken. Then there are the two widely inconsistent genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, where Joseph’s father was Jacob in Matthew and Heli in Luke. Considering that Joseph was not supposed to be the father of Jesus at all, the detailed genealogies are surprising. These discrepancies but indicate, as the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann concluded, that the gospel stories were put together from different traditions and made into an apparently coherent sequence. Ernest Renan, in his Life of Jesus also considered the gospels as “legendary biographics.”
Apart from the four canonical gospels of the Bible, (as well as apocryphal and pseudepigraphic literature, whose testimony on the historicity of Jesus do not basically add to the accounts found in the canonical books), three other sources are relevant in the search for independent testimony as to the historicity of Jesus: (a) the testimonies of contemporary Jewish historians; (b) the Jewish Talmud, and (c) the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jewish historians. In the Antiquities of the Jewish People by Josephus (37-100), there are two controversial passages that refer to Jesus:
- Now at this time, Jesus arose. He was a wise man (if he must actually be described as a man), for he was a doer of remarkable deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with delight. He persuaded both many Jewish people and many of the Greeks as well. He was the Messiah. And after Pilate had punished him with a cross at the instigation of high ranking men among us, those who loved him at first did not stop because he appeared to them living again on the third day — the divine prophets had predicted these and countless other marvelous things about him. Even now, the group named after this man, the Christians, has still not disappeared. (xviii, 3:3)
- Ananus . . . called a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought James, the brother of Jesus (who is called Messiah) along with some others. (xx, 9:1)
The first passage has been controversial due to the fact that Josephus, being a Jew, could not have called Jesus as the Messiah. Origen (185-254) wrote that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Contra Celsum 1:47), thus further corroborating that the disputed passage must have been a later interpolation by Christians.
Another important contemporary historian was Philo Judaeus (15 BCE - 50 CE), who chronicled the religious life of the Jews. There was no allusion at all to Jesus in his works. Another first century historian was Justus of Tiberias, who wrote a history of the Jews from the time of Moses to Agrippa, the last king of the Jews. His work has not survived but had been read by Photius, 9th century patriarch of Constantinople. Photius wrote that he was surprised that Justus did not mention Jesus at all.
Talmudic Jesus. A major source of independent corroboration of the historical existence of Jesus is the Jewish Talmud, which is a collection of codes and commentaries that was started in the second century BCE and completed in the 5th century CE. Besides the Torah, the Talmud constitutes the most important source of Jewish religious law and tradition. It is divided into the Mishna, the codes, and the Gemara or the commentaries. One of the tractates, Baraitha Bab, Sanhedrin 43a, speaks of Jesus (Yeshu) being hanged on the eve of the Passover.
- On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
Another traditional account, the Tolodoth Yeshu, contains an account of a Teacher named Joshua Ben Pandira whose life parallels that of Jesus. He lived about 100 BCE during the time of Alexander Janneaus of Lyd. He was born of Miriam and a Roman soldier named Joseph Panthera, and was the pupil of Rabbi Jehoshua ben-Perahiah. The Church father Epiphanius in 400 CE confirms this account. (See JESHU BEN PANTHERA.)
The Dead Sea Scrolls. The recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls opened up another angle in the issue of the historicity of Jesus. The scrolls spoke of an unnamed Teacher of Righteousness who appeared to have many similar qualities of those of the anticipated Messiah. This has led to some scholars to speculate whether this teacher is also the origin of the Jesus story. Most scholars however considered this Teacher to be a separate individual.
Jesus the Nazarene. Another point worth noting is that the New Testament constantly refers to Jesus as Iesous ho Nazoriaos or Jesus the Nazorian (or Nazarene). It is commonly translated as “Jesus of Nazareth,” which is inaccurate, and in the New Revised Standard Version, it is now translated as “Jesus the Nazarene” or “Jesus the Nazorian.” The Nazarenes are a Gnostic sect where one of the rules was not to cut one’s hair. It is apparently related to the NAZARITE (or Nazirite) sect of the Old Testament mentioned in the Pentateuch (Num 6:1-27) where the members do not cut their hair, do not drink wine, and do not touch corpses. Samson and Samuel were Nazirites. The later Nazarenes, however, based on their Codex Nazaraeus, only revered John the Baptist and do not consider Jesus as the Messiah.
Theosophical View. Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote that the gospel accounts were not historical and that the real source of the legend about Jesus was the life of Joshua Ben Pandira mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. She states that the gospel accounts were written as an allegory containing deep truths about spiritual initiation.
- For me Jesus Christ, i.e., the Man-God of the Christians, copied from the Avatâras of every country, from the Hindu Krishna as well as the Egyptian Horus, was never a historical person. He is a deified personification of the glorified type of the great Hierophants of the Temples, and his story, as told in the New Testament, is an allegory, assuredly containing profound esoteric truths, but still an allegory. . . . The legend of which I speak is founded, as I have demonstrated over and over again in my writings and my notes, on the existence of a personage called Jehoshua (from which Jesus has been made) born at Lüd or Lydda about 120 years before the modern era. (CW IX:224-5)
Blavatsky wrote that the reason that Philo Judeaus did not mention Jesus was because “the biography of Jesus was invented after the first century, and no one in Jerusalem was better informed on the subject than Philo himself” (CW IX:227). The Mahatma KOOT HOOMI also speaks of “Jesus who is a spiritual abstraction and no living man of that epoch” (ML, p. 109).
Blavatsky stresses the importance of distinguishing between Chrestos, a good man, and CHRISTOS, the Messiah or the Christ principle. Jesus must not be confused with the Christos, which is a universal principle hidden in everyone.
- The word Christ, which means the glorified, the triumphant, and also the “anointed” (from the word χρίω, to anoint) cannot be applied to Jesus. . . . Jesus was a Chrêstos: χρηστδςό Κύριος (the Lord is good), as St. Peter said (1st Epistle, ii, 3), whether he actually lived during the Christian era or a century earlier. (CW VIII:380)
- A divine Christ (or Christos) has never existed under a human form outside the imagination of blasphemers who have carnalized a universal and entirely impersonal principle. (CW IX:223)
Blavatsky sympathized with the Gnostics’ view of Jesus, such as those of Marcion, Basilides and Valentinus. She wrote that
- The true Christians died with the last of the Gnostics, and the Christians of our day are but the usurpers of a name they no longer understand. . . . Western Theosophists accept the Christos as did the Gnostics of the centuries which preceded Christianity, as do the Vedântins their Krishna: they distinguish the corporeal man from the divine Principle which, in the case of the Avatâra, animates him. (CW VIII:374)
In THE MAHATMA LETTERS TO A. P. SINNETT, the Mahatma Koot Hoomi states:
- Call it by whatever name, only let these unfortunate, deluded Christians know that the real Christ of every Christian is the Vach, the “mystical Voice,” while the man Jeshu was but a mortal like any of us, an adept more by his inherent purity and ignorance of real Evil than by what he had learned with his initiated Rabbis and the already (at that period) fast degenerating Egyptian Hierophants and priests. (ML, p. 377)
Thus the theosophical view puts emphasis on awakening of the mystical Christ within each person. The MAHA-CHOHAN, one of the most revered among the Mahatmas, stated that
- Once unfettered [and] delivered from their dead weight of dogmatic interpretations, personal names, anthropomorphic conceptions and salaried priests, the fundamental doctrines of all religions will be proved identical in their esoteric meaning. Osiris, Chrishna, Buddha, Christ, will be shown as different means for one and [the] same royal highway to final bliss, Nirvana.
- Mystical Christianity, that is to say that Christianity which teaches self redemption through one’s own seventh principle — the liberated Para-atma (Augoeides) called by the one Christ, by others Buddha, and equivalent to regeneration or rebirth in spirit — will be found just the same truth as the Nirvana of mystical Buddhism. . . . But if we would not be selfish we must strive to make other people see that truth, to recognise the reality of that transcendental self, the Buddh, the Christ or God of every preacher. (ML, p. 478)
This view of the inner Christ concurs with the meaning of such verses as “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col 1:27), ‘”My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!”(Gal 4:19), etc. The 17th century mystic Angelus Silesius echoed this with the famous lines: “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn.” This unequivocally stresses the meaning of the term “Christ” as a divine principle within each human being, rather than as a historical person.
See CHRISTIANITY; CHRISTIANITY, THEOSOPHICAL VIEW OF.
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