Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

I put off posting until the final day of this month because it coincides with the Christian holy day with the coolest name: Spy Wednesday.  Not in the sense of the Gospel According to Ian Fleming, unfortunately, though that would be fitting considering that when Jesus was called before the Sanhedrin (Jewish high priests) and then sent to Pilate (the governor), it was for political insurrection.

That’s pretty spy-worthy.

Except the spy part refers to Yehuda ex Karioth, now known as Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  More contemporary accounts hold that Judas was actually acting on the will of Jesus, which makes it the sort of double-cross Ian Fleming loved.

While I’ve always understood why Christians mark Easter Sunday as their most holy day, I’ve always thought today is more important.

Because Spy Wednesday is also the day Jesus became Christ.

***

I was raised Catholic, and remained Catholic until my junior year of high school.  At that time, I transferred to a public school and broke from the faith before, two years later, I enrolled in a Jesuit college.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I worried how that education might conflict with one in science (I was already a declared pre-med major); science and religion have always been strange bedfellows.

There were a fair amount of priests on faculty, however, and I made it a point to get to know them so that I understood, better, what being Jesuit meant.  Wikipedia notes that Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s marines,” but none of the priests I ever met seemed in any way militant.  Seriously, imagine your grandfather.  Or better yet, your grandfather’s brother, and imagine him both drunk and too old to be creepy anymore, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the men I met.  They all had the sorts of smiles that stayed around their eyes long after their mouths were otherwise occupied, and they all seemed to wear cardigans.  They spoke softly, and sometimes called you “Son.”

To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what Jesuit means, as opposed to what Catholic or Christian or Free Presbyterian (or Locked-Up Presbyterian) mean.  So far as I experienced it, it means education, compassion, and service.

Now that I’ve begun to teach classes in colleges, now that students and colleagues call me a professor and I hope one day to actually become one, I find I measure my own classroom performance against my experience in one particular class I attended more than a decade ago.  On the cusp of 32, it amazes me that a class I took as a sophomore in college, when I was 19 friggin’ years old, could be so developmentally important, but every year I realize just how much impact it’s had on my life.

That year, I took six credits of an honors seminar in theology, as required by the college’s curriculum.  I dreaded it; I was going to be a doctor, after all, and medicine isn’t about prayer.  It’s about knowledge and skill and precision, names of veins and arteries and the singular confidence that is picking up a scalpel and using it to cut open another person’s body, knowing you can help them, maybe even save them.

I am not a doctor because I realized I don’t have that confidence.

I didn’t realize it in that class, though.  That class was about other realizations, the kind of realizations so deep and fundamental you’re still making them a decade later.  Or at least I am.  I’ve always been slow like that.

My theology class was taught by a man named Robert Kennedy.  Jesuit priest trained in Zen Buddhism.  Tall and Irish.  Quick, piercing eyes that glasses did nothing to blunt.  When Father Kennedy listened to you, it made you want to say something that could change the world, because for a moment you believed you could.

We read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but we didn’t consider it as a religious document.  We looked at its historical context.  After we finished Revelations, we began to read literature, including More’s Utopia and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in more religious contexts, basically viewing each work through a lens of theological criticism just as we had applied feminist or sociological criticism in our literature classes.

When we hit the Gospels, they came as a revelation to me.  Not for content; I knew what they said.  I narrated the Nativity when I was in second grade.

What came as a surprise was the questions we raised about them.  Who wrote them?  Was Jesus a real person, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures?

Just asking those questions, nevermind the questions themselves, came as an epiphany for me; in those Catholic schools I’d attended, we weren’t allowed.  It could earn us detention.  Or worse.

***

When you ask questions in math or science, usually the answer is either an equation or an experiment away.  In literature and philosophy, five pages of well-argued bullshit do quite nicely.

History is different, though.  We want facts, evidence, citations, sources.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe it’s the scientist in me.  When I consider life and its origins and evolution, nothing about it strikes me as so “convenient” that I require a deity to have initiated the process. There seems to be quite a bold leap from measurable, documentable evidence to “There must be an invisible dude in the sky.”

As with so many aspects of the Bible, problems with Jesus emerge when considering his life and story in the context of evidence.  There is, arguably, more circumstantial evidence of Jesus than of Shakespeare (four gospels versus a few signatures and a will), but Jesus didn’t write 30 plays.

Facts are hazy.  We know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Anglican names—they were probably Matthaeis and Yuchanan, for two, and Marcus and Lucas, I suppose—but we’re not precisely sure who they were, when they were writing, or why.  By most modern academic agreement, the earliest gospel was Mark.  Mark was not an apostle, and he didn’t write until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; most believe he was basically Peter’s secretary—Peter being Simon Peter, on whom Jesus declared he would build the Church, the building of which seems to have gotten in the way of Peter ever actually recording anything.  Most scholars in addition believe that two of the three other gospels—Matthew and Luke—were based on Mark and another source, called Q, and written several years later.

Those three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are the synoptics, meaning they summarize the life, ministry, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  None of the authors actually met the man in question.

John’s is an oddball gospel; not only is it written in a completely different style, but John’s record of events don’t always coincide with the others’, to the point that he places the date for Jesus’ crucifixion in a different year.  John’s also the guy who wrote Revelations.  I’ve also heard that John is the guy who wrote while fasting on an island on which he consumed nothing but hallucinogenic mushrooms for a while.

I can’t argue the veracity of that claim, but it would certainly explain a lot.  Especially considering Revelations.

But the veracity of the Gospel accounts overall is something that’s fascinated me for years.  Some studies have claimed the most recognizable brands on Earth are Coke, McDonald’s, and Disney, but they seem to completely ignore Jesus (TM).  The Bible is the greatest-selling book of all time by several orders of magnitude.  Lately it seems like social media gurus have been talking endlessly about personal branding, and here’s the guy with the most powerful personal brand in history.  “Love your neighbor.”  “Blessed are the meek.”  He spoke in soundbites ready for mass consumption.

Except, of course, he probably didn’t.

Which is the part that’s fascinated me.  The separation of the man from the brand.

His appearance, for one.  A quick scan of IMDb lists numerous actors who’ve tackled the role: James Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Christian Bale, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe to name arguably the most famous (and I have no idea why I always think of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I could have sworn O’Toole gave the role a shot).  What you’ll notice is a bunch of white dudes of mostly European heritage.

Which, of course, Jesus was not.  The big geographical points of his story are Bethlehem, in Judea, and Nazareth, in Galilee.  Most of his ministry occurred in the latter until he traveled to Jerusalem, which was where he ran into all the trouble and was crucified.

The most famous aspects of the Judas story are the pieces of silver and the kiss.  The silver is incidental, but the kiss is important; without it, chances are the soldiers arresting Jesus wouldn’t have recognized him.  Because he was just a regular bloke, and being a regular bloke back then meant he was short, probably under 5’5”.  He was also Jewish, which meant he probably had a darker complexion, and while most accounts refer to him as a carpenter, he was actually a tekton, which is closer in meaning to builder, and probably a stone mason.  So he was a short, muscular, Jewish guy.

Not Christian Bale.

***

I think the more important aspect of the Spy Wednesday story, however, at least in Christian terms, is that it is the day Jesus became Christ.  The two words, nowadays, are so inseparable people sometimes confuse Christ with Jesus’ last name.

It’s not, of course.  They didn’t really have surnames then, not like we do.  There wasn’t a Jesus Jones and a Jesus Smith and a Jesus Washington.  People were identified, mostly, by where they came from, their parents, or their occupation; Jesus would likely have been Yehoshua ex Natzeret or Yehoshua bin Miryam—that is, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Mary.  That latter because, remember, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, and had no father.  This little factoid is interesting considering that, when Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and the other prisoner, that other prisoner was Jesus bar Abbas, literally “Jesus, son of the Father.”  Make of that what you will.

Christ, however, is not a name.  It’s a title.  Like doctor, or professor.  An honorific.  It means annointed, which is what Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus was staying on the outskirts of Jerusalem, did on Holy Wednesday.  She annointed Jesus with a luxurious oil.

This annointment is what made Jesus both Messiah and Christ.  Both terms simply mean annointed.

***

I think about all this right around now every year for obvious reasons, not least because I still wonder about that account.  I can’t break from my scientific mindset; like Thomas the Doubter, I need more evidence to be convinced of any of the supernatural aspects of the story of Jesus.  I find the evidence he existed, and preached, and was crucified, reasonably credible.  There are enough accounts by enough writers that I can say I think it’s pretty likely a man named Jesus lived during the early part of the first century, and preached about love and our neighbors and had some relaxed and groovy philosophies.  I’m reasonably convinced he was a bit of a socialist and believed in judging not, and for that he got on the wrong side of the government, who didn’t know what else to do with him besides crucify him.

And that’s about it.  Virgin births and miracles and resurrections from the dead: not only am I not even a little convinced any of those things occurred, but neither am I convinced they matter.  In fact, most days, I go so far as to note I think that the supernatural aspects of the story cloud the truth of the man and his ministry.

Then again, as Pilate so famously asked: “What is Truth?”

(Image from here, after a BBC program and subsequent Popular Mechanics issue that explored forensic imaging of Jesus. Fascinating stuff.)