By Rex Weyler
I set out five years ago to write “The Jesus Sayings” (Anansi, 2008) with a simple goal. I wanted to know: Did a real Jesus exist in history? And if so, what did he actually say and do? Scholars have labored over these questions for centuries, and offer no simple answers, but evidence exists to guide such a quest.
Some historians believe the Jesus story is a composite of myths, and indeed later writers attached certain legends to his name. Nevertheless, some 200 ancient sources – sayings collections, gospels, letters, and fragments – attest to Jesus traditions during the two centuries after his death. Most scholars believe the diversity of accounts suggest a real Jesus – Aramaic Yeshua – who strode barefoot and poor from the Galilean hills into history.
The earliest physical evidence of a Jesus story, called “P52,” a little scrap of papyrus the size of a cash register receipt, appears a century after his life, in about 125 A.D. The fragment contains 110 Greek letters comprising twelve complete words, with Jesus explaining that he came into the world, “to witness the truth.”
The earliest complete gospel manuscripts appear in the fourth century, so we may fairly wonder how well Jesus’ message survived centuries of oral transmission, and lost written accounts. Text scholars have pealed back layers of language, compared texts, and concluded that source documents appeared before any narrative gospels were written. These include the gospel of Thomas and other source material used by Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
These earliest accounts describe a divine kingdom “like a mustard seed,” a small thing that grows as a wild plant. We hear Jesus tell the poor to stop worrying about their comforts, to look inside, find the light within, and to share that light with the world. In this earliest layer, Jesus tells followers that spiritual grace does not come from ritual or belief, but from acts of compassion.
Archeologists have uncovered the gospels of Mary, Philip, and other early followers that shine fresh light on the Jesus story. Reading this material transformed my understanding of the simple and humble teacher from Galilee. For example, we learn from these ancient sources:
1. The earliest Jesus followers were not Christians at all, but peasant Jews (Ebionites, Nazoreans, and the Thomas sect), who did not necessarily think of Jesus as a messiah, but as a human teacher.
2. Jesus (Yeshua) was a peasant Jew from, “the People of the Land,” an inter-married culture that harboured pagan beliefs about Asherah, the queen of heaven, Tammuz the suffering servant, and other heroes and deities. The northern name, Israelites (Isra el im), distinct from southern Judeans, meant “Defenders of El,” the consort of Asherah in Canaan.
3. “Nazorean” and “Magdalene” may be honorific titles that had nothing to do with towns. A Nazorean is “separated” (nazar) from common society by righteousness. The Magdalene is the “tower,” (magdal) of the flock, the people’s queen. We possess no confirming evidence of a first century Nazareth or Magdala. Fourth century writers under Emperor Constantine assigned towns to these popular titles.
When we peal back the layers of legend we may arrive at something close to a real, historical Jesus. We find a humble peasant teacher, who comforted the poor with a divine kingdom in the here and now, “spread out on the Earth.” We discover that kingdom, he said, by knowing ourselves and by giving to others. As simple as this message appears, even today, it could enlighten the world.
Rex Weyler is the author of “The Jesus Sayings: The quest for his authentic message” (Anansi Press, 2008); “Greenpeace: The Inside Story” (Raincoast, 2004); and “Blood of the Land, a history of the American Indian Movement.”