Jesus Christ is often assumed to be a real historical figure but many academics question this assumption with some believing he wasn’t a man but a myth. This especially divides agnostics into historicists and mythicists. Both sides don’t believe he was the Son of God or a supernatural being. But they are bitterly divided over whether he was a historical figure (historicists) or a literary construct (mythicists).
And both sides have compelling arguments. It’s a fascinating topic because at the heart of it is the question – how did Christianity ever get off the ground? How did an eastern mystery cult, built around an executed Judaean seditionary, become the state religion of the Roman Empire?
Historicists are faced with the challenge of bridging a gap of about forty years between the likely date for the crucifixion of Jesus and the first gospel. They normally claim that the first gospel writer, widely recognised as Mark, got the biographical details on Jesus from a mix of sayings past down and oral traditions. Mythicists retort – you have no hard evidence. And why didn’t Paul, who was writing before Mark, ever refer to the life story of Jesus?
Then we have the next two gospel writers, chronologically….Matthew and Luke. Mythicists say they basically rewrote Mark but with twists designed to appeal to their specific Christian communities. Historicists say they used Mark but also a long lost book of sayings referred to as “Q” and sources unique to each of them – accounting for the differences in their accounts.
And then both historicists and believing evangelicals like to point to non-Christian (pagan) Roman sources that seem to prove the existence of a historic Jesus. Roman historians like Tacitus, Josephus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius. But even historicists will admit that Christian scribes very likely altered texts and added references to Jesus to suggest he was a recognised figure in his lifetime – or shortly afterwards. Mythicists scoff at these Roman sources as faked interpolations.
In the summer of 2019, I visited Fatima in Portugal. This was the place where, in the year 1917, three peasant children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. One of many apparitions over the centuries that have turned innocuous places into globally revered pilgrimage sites. Millions still make a beeline to Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe in the hope of getting closer to God or finding a cure for a disease.
Marian apparitions have always tended to dominate – that’s the Virgin Mary paying a visit to planet Earth. And her visitations have often coincided with a tough period for the church where its popularity was waning or it was under attack. Nothing like an apparition to galvanise the faithful!
It’s also a way in which the Roman Catholic church cements its position among new converts. So at Guadalupe, it was an Aztec convert who saw the Virgin Mary. His name was Juan Diego (or assumed name after baptism) and the V.M. obligingly left an imprint of herself on his cloak. This convinced an initially sceptical church that he had indeed experienced the Marian apparition. As I saw for myself in 2014, Guadalupe is still a hugely popular pilgrimage site.
The church has often been ambivalent about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, apostles and saints. I suspect one of the reasons is the Catholic church’s desire for ultimate control. Apparitions are a moment when the faithful have the whip hand. It also begs the questions why the V.M. would choose a lay person instead of a priest of bishop to relay important heavenly messages. But the church tends to embrace the apparition once further proof is offered. Not that this proof would satisfy a scientific test of course.
Below are scenes from Fatima that I filmed on my smartphone in 2019. In front of the basilica is an airport size piazza, like a gigantic runway. And along its length, pilgrims move on their knees. You can see similar scenes at Lourdes in France and Knock in Ireland.
Whether this self-abasement actually has a positive effect has been a discussion point among psychologists and doctors for years. It would be fascinating to know what impact it has on death-related anxiety and depression. One report I read recently expressed concern about the sharp rise in the number of over-60s going on pilgrimage to places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain – where you have to do a very long walk to get there. Far from curing those involved, the whole experience exacerbated cardiac conditions among some elderly people.
Imagine a completely different story about Jesus Christ – one that diverges from what we get in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It does exist. In all those lost gospels rejected by the early Christian church. The texts thrown out because they didn’t conform to orthodoxy.
Secret gospels that minority Christian sects held on to and copied assiduously. With very different views of Jesus – some that he was simply a man while others that he was a supernatural being with no human substance. These gospels were burned, suppressed and banned. And only thanks to chance discoveries and archaeology have we any idea that they ever existed.
Those who oppose any study of the Lost Gospels today will claim – breathlessly – that the reason our gospels were chosen was because authorship could be verified. But no serious bible historian (as opposed to literal evangelical) really thinks the gospels were written by the apostles. “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” were names added later – and bear no relation to the illiterate followers of Jesus. In fact, the authors of the four gospels were Greek speakers – not Aramaic peasants.
Not just four gospels – but all the lost gospels too
For fifteen hundred years, Christians have grown used to the idea of just Four Gospels. But these are the magic four that the early Church decided, for a variety of reasons, were acceptable to the faithful. The current compilation took a while to take root and to be universally accepted – and there are still differences between, say, Catholicism’s bible, Protestantism’s bible and that of the Eastern Orthodox church.
So what happened to the missing Gospels? They were suppressed, burnt, condemned and so on. But over the years, they have stubbornly turned up in other writings or simply been dug out of the ground. A list of those Gospels and their translations can be found here.
Lost Gospels of James and St Peter
These include the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of St Peter and the Gospel of the Egyptians. The latter was condemned for its insistence on sexual abstinence as a way of breaking the endless cycle of life and death and taking all our souls skywards to heaven. This would not do as the church insisted we had to go through an earthly cycle to, as it were, prove our worthiness to go to heaven. The earthy teacher and invigilator for this admittance exam for entrance to heaven would, of course, be the church.
In fact, any gospel that threatened the power and very raison d’etre for an earthly church was roundly condemned. As were gospels – like that of the Ebionites – which presented Jesus as too mortal (and Jewish) or those that failed to present him as mortal enough (the Marcionites and Gnostics who saw him as a purely divine force to be understood through a kind of transcendental meditation).
Gaps in the life story of Jesus filled by the Lost Gospels
Interestingly, these gospels offer more information on key parts of the bible story. The Infancy Gospel of James gives a whole heap of detail on Mary’s birth to an elderly couple who had given up hope of having children. It explains why the Temple insisted on her marriage to the carpenter Joseph and then tells how Jesus was born in a cave with Salome acting as midwife. As Herod’s troops approach, Jesus is hidden in an animal trough to avoid detection.
The Gospel of St Peter is at the more anti-Jewish end of the Gospel spectrum. As the noted scholar Bart Ehrman has noted in his excellent books on biblical texts, you can crudely divide up gospels in to those that lean more towards a mortal and very Jewish Jesus and those that lean towards a more divine figure and tend to blame the Jews for his crucifixion.
In the Gospel of St Peter, Pontius Pilate is completely exonerated for the death of Jesus. By washing his hands, he really has refused to have anything to do with the trial and it’s Herod Antipas who passes the death sentence. The Coptic church took this interpretation a step further by looking at Pilate as a virtual saint.
Jesus the Vegetarian in the Lost Gospels
The Gospel of the Ebionites portrays Jesus and John the Baptist as vegetarians and Jesus takes a decidedly dim view of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. This makes Jesus a Jewish reformer – probably in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the soul searching that took place among Jews.
This event took place decades after the crucifixion but it shows how what was happening as these Gospels were written insinuated in to the stories. Basically, the Gospels (including the four we know) were often part of a polemic between different Christian/Jewish groups. They simply put words in to the mouth of Jesus and his apostles to support their view.
Mary Magdalene way more important in the Lost Gospels
The Gospel of Mary controversially places Mary Magdalene above the disciples – not just in the affections of Jesus but as a follower. As with many of these Gospels and the four we know (mainly written in the very late first century and most in the second century AD), what we can actually discern here are some early disputes between Christians.
In this case – are women allowed to preach and hold high position in the church? The argument is portrayed in a dispute within the Gospel between St Peter and Mary Magdalene. Peter is obviously telling Mary Magdalene to get back in the kitchen and make some tea for the lads (I’m joking) while Mary has different ideas. This same story of a bust up between the two appears in at least three other suppressed Gospels – the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of St Thomas.
The latter gospel is very interesting. St Thomas is said to be the apostle who takes Christianity to India. While in India, he encounters a huge snake that reveals itself to be the devil. I love this encounter where Lucifer explains the difficult relationship with a father who he feels has been rather unfair to him – here is a quote:
And he said unto him (devil to Thomas): I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father, of him that hurt and smote the four brethren which stood upright. I am also son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth, that receiveth back his own from them that borrow. I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere and I am kin to him that is outside the ocean whose tail is set in his own mouth. I am he that entered through the barrier in to paradise and spake with Eve the things which my father bade me speak unto her. I am he that kindled and inflamed Cain to kill his own brother and on mine account did thorns and thistles grow up in the earth.
One thing to note about the Thomas gospel is that Jesus is rarely challenged as he sets down the law of his father. But in Gospels that are regarded as earlier than Thomas – the so-called Oxryhynchus 1224 Gospel written very close to Jesus’ death – Jesus has to argue hard with his opponents in the market place.
Well, there’s plenty more than can be said about the Apocrypha – the term used for the Lost Gospels. If you thought there were contradictions in the accounts of the four Gospels authorised by the Church (compare their accounts of the empty tomb discovery for example), then you’ll find plenty more confusion when you add these in to the mix.
Eight years ago I was at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem and queued to see the site where Jesus was crucified. This huge medieval place of worship encompasses both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. Or so it’s been claimed since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century after Christ.
The Holy Sepulchre is divided between different Christian faiths – Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac, Ethiopians, etc. And they’re not beyond fighting each other in turf wars within the church walls. Anyway, back to the place where Christ was crucified. As I queued in 2012, some Russian nuns in front of me where in quite an ecstatic state as my video shows. Apologies for the quality of digital cameras in those days!
I’m being a bit flippant of course. But there are still people who get incredibly upset if you dare to suggest that Jesus might not have been something approaching blond and blue eyed.
The ethnicity of Jesus has been exciting people for two millennia. From very early on in the history of the church, there was a concerted attempt to divorce Jesus from his own Jewish background. To do this meant emphasising his alleged divinity over his human self.
At its most extreme, there was the Third Reich in the 20th century trying to turn the Messiah into a member of the master race. Some Nazi occultists even tried to suggest that he was descended from a special race of humans from the Arctic!!
Before we get going on the whole Jesus being blond or not question – a quick note to say that I’m going for the spelling “blond” and not “blonde”. Largely because I know American readers tend to use “blond” more. Though in Europe they can be more interchangeable and in France it’s blond for a man and blonde for a woman.
Anyway, that’s you grammar obsessives dealt with! Now on with the show…
Jesus – probably not blond
The first thing to state is that there’s nothing much by way of a physical description of Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament. We’re not told if he was tall, short, dark or fair. Brown-eyed or blue-eyed.
And we’re not informed because it wasn’t deemed to be important to the early faithful. Some Christians even took the view that the human form was something evil that we needed to shake off. So the physical appearance of Jesus was not a thing to dwell on.
Did the Romans turn Jesus blond?
But then Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire – we see a big change. Any lingering reservations about graven images of Jesus fly out the door. He is the new God of the Romans!
Roman depictions of Jesus drew on pagan iconography more than you might like to think. On the Vatican museum website, there is a photo of a statue of Christ as the good shepherd and an acknowledgement that this imagery borrowed heavily from that of Apollo.
Apollo was a God of the sun with a halo and forever at this most youthful and virile – and possibly blond. Jesus also sometimes pops up in Roman Christian art as Apollo’s father – Zeus – enthroned in majesty. He acquires long hair and a beard – though more often dark haired than blond.
Jesus – not blond and with short hair
In the Greco-Roman tradition, philosophers and people of great learning were bearded. But at the time that Jesus was alive, the Roman elite were clean shaven and short-haired. Only after the Emperor Hadrian in the following century do emperors go bearded.
Among Jewish people in Judaea, there’s a suggestion that clean shaven may also have been seen as desirable. In his letters, St Paul doesn’t appear to approve of the hipster look declaring that “long hair was a shame unto a man”. So our long-haired blond Jesus wouldn’t have impressed Paul very much.
And this hang up about long hair continues into the Middle Ages with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century ranting against the king and his court being too hirsute. Then, according to an account, he took a pair of scissors and cut the king’s hair!
That said, Jesus had already acquired long flowing locks in most images of him – especially on the cross.
America and the blonde Jesus
It’s in the United States, in the 19th century, that we see the greatest angst over the skin and hair colour of Jesus. Especially in the slave-owning southern states where owners spent a surprising amount of time vexing about what kind of Christianity to impose on their slaves.
What they didn’t want was slaves to view Christ as a supreme master of all to whom they could appeal or emulate. After all, Jesus knew the lash of the whip and died humiliated on the cross. That sounded more like a slave’s life than that of a master.
So, there seems to have been a certain impetus among white Americans to ensure that Jesus was depicted very much as a Caucasian European. Even his Jewishness evaporates. And with the rise of the Mormons comes the idea that a fair-skinned Jesus even visited America after his resurrection.
Jesus the blond working for the enemy
In 2010, Aurum Press published my biography of the black British boxer Errol Christie – No Place To Hide. Errol was a good friend and sadly died of cancer in 2017. He often used to remark how his Jamaican mother would invoke the name of Jesus during family rows.
But he would look at the blond, blue-eyed representation on the walls and wonder just whose side the risen Christ was on. He certainly didn’t look like a champion for black rights, Errol used to quip to me.