Perhaps no historical figure is more deeply mired in legend and myth than Jesus of Nazareth.
Outside of the Gospels – which are not so much factual accounts of Jesus but arguments about his religious significance – there is almost no trace of this simple Galilean peasant who inspired the world’s largest religion.
But there’s enough biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus to raise questions about some of the myths that have formed around him over the past 2,000 years.
1. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’ early years.
Stories about his birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents about him: the letters of Paul (written between A.D. 50 and 60) and the Gospel of Mark (written after A.D. 70). But as interest in the person of Jesus increased, the nascent Christian community tried to fill in the gaps of his youth to align his life and mission with the myriad, and often conflicting, prophecies about the messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.
One of those prophecies requires the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, the city where most scholars believe he was born, that he was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem so he could be born in the same city as David.
For the evangelist Luke, the answer lay in a census called by Rome in A.D. 6, which he claims required every subject to travel to his ancestral home to be counted. Since Jesus’ father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his fiancee, Mary, left Nazareth for the city of David, where Jesus was born.
And thus the prophecy was fulfilled.
Yet this Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria and Idumea – not Galilee, where Jesus’ family lived. What’s more, since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace.
Simply put, Luke places Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem ... from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”
2. Jesus was an only child.
Despite the Catholic doctrine of His mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can be certain that the historical Jesus came from a large family with at least four brothers who are named in the Gospels – James, Joseph, Simon and Judas – and an unknown number of sisters. That Jesus had brothers and sisters is attested to repeatedly by the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Even the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus’ brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death.
Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brother – “adelphos” – could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child.
3. Jesus had 12 disciples.
This myth is based on a misunderstanding of the three categories of Jesus’ followers. The first was made up of those who came to hear him speak or to be healed by him whenever he entered a village or town. The Gospels refer to this group as “crowds.”
The second category was composed of those who followed Jesus from town to town, village to village. These were called disciples, and according to the Gospel of Luke, there were 70 or 72 of them, depending on which version of the text you believe.
The third category of Jesus’ followers was known as the apostles. These 12 men were no mere disciples, for they did not just follow Jesus from one place to another. Rather, they were given permission to go off on their own and preach his message independently and without supervision. They were, in other words, the chief missionaries of the Jesus movement.
4. Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate.
The Gospels portray Pontius Pilate as an honest but weak-willed governor who was strong-armed by the Jewish authorities into sending a man he knew was innocent to the cross. The Pilate of history, however, was renowned for sending his troops onto the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions. In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination.
It is, of course, conceivable that Jesus would have received an audience with the Roman governor if the magnitude of his crime warranted special attention. But any “trial” Jesus got would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which he was being executed.
5. Jesus was buried in a tomb.
The Gospels say that after the crucifixion, Jesus’ body was brought down from the cross and placed in a tomb. If that were true, it would have been because of an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans.
Crucifixion was not just a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, some criminals were first executed and then nailed to a cross. The primary purpose of crucifixion was to deter rebellion; that’s why it was always carried out in public. It was also why the criminal was always left hanging long after he died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.
It is possible that, unlike practically every other criminal crucified by Rome, Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea. But it is not very likely.