From what we know, and it must be recognized that none of what we know about Jesus and the people who knew him is first-hand information, no one who was there, who saw what happened during Jesus’ lifetime, or who knew someone who was there (with one exception), wrote anything about it that has come down to us over the past two thousand years. All of the accounts we know of were written by people depending on second-hand knowledge of the person and events of Jesus’ life and the people around him. Even Paul, the exception, did not actually see or speak with Jesus nor was he there when the events of Jesus’ life unfolded. Paul did speak with some people who were, but even a basic reading of his writings – the ones he actually wrote, not the ones attributed to him but later proven to be written by others long after his death – shows that his account of Jesus’ words and deeds are far divorced from all other early accounts. Paul was admittedly struck blind by an emotional or psychological crisis from which he recovered a vastly changed individual. We have to conclude that Paul subsequently developed his own idea of who Jesus was and what he said and did that are at odds with almost everything else people were believing at the time.
Was Paul and an atheist? Was Jesus an atheist? Paul believed in the Jewish God, and proclaimed that Jesus himself was divine, the son of that God. Jesus was, and declared himself to be, a Jew. A law-following Jew. Mostly. But, still a believer in the Jewish God. But, as it would quickly come to pass, Jesus became God, as he is proclaimed to this day. Now, until one gets to the Gospel of John, which is surely the most wordy and long-winded and obviously agenda-ridden of the Jesus tales, Jesus never identifies himself with God as a son, or part of God. Mark, the earliest of the Canonical gospels, is certainly the main source for Luke and Matthew, and Mark doesn’t report Jesus of claiming any kind of divinity.
So, the question comes, if one doesn’t believe that Jesus and God are one, is that person an atheist? If so, and if Jesus didn’t believe himself to be the same a God, was he too an atheist? How about his friends and followers who didn’t think that? Were they atheists or merely Jews who weren’t concerned with Jesus so-called divinity? Well, obviously, Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t an atheist in the common understanding of that word. He felt so close to his Jewish god that he often referred to him as “father”, which may have other connotations I touch upon in my story.
We know that it is very probable that Jesus from Nazareth was the head of a small group of followers. That he got into trouble during the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem while Pontius Pilate was the Prefect there. (Recently, a stone was discovered in Caesarea Maritima, home to the Roman Governors in Judea during Jesus’ time, that bears an inscription with Pilate’s name. Pretty solid evidence of Pilate’s existence and presence in Judea.) He was executed by crucifixion, a common Roman punishment, along with other “criminals” during this time. We know that his followers went into hiding for a time, then told stories about Jesus to anyone who would listen.
We know that the story began to include information that was not present in its original form, such as Jesus’ burial tomb being found empty, but the discoverers of this fact, being all women, did not tell anyone. Later this story was changed. We also know that Jesus, being poor and labeled a criminal, was not eligible under Jewish law to have his body placed in a family tomb, even if his family had a tomb, which they almost certainly did not in Jerusalem. The usual procedure was to toss the dead bodies of criminals into pits dug in the valley of Gehenna, adjacent to Jerusalem’s walls, cover them with lime and stone and forget about them. As Crossan said, those who knew where Jesus body came to rest didn’t care, and the ones who cared, didn’t know.
Jesus’ divine paternity, his teachings and the final destination of his body were never established except in the minds of those who wished to believe the stories that grew and changed about him over time and place. It is still so today.
A Roadside Shrine
Near where we live in Southern Colorado is a capillita, or gruta, a roadside shrine that has been there for many, many years. It is obviously a Christian shrine, the plastic Marys, Josephs, Jesuses, Wise Men and the other Nativity icons are numerous. There are offerings here too – hair clips, money, shoes, pieces of clothing, wire and branches twisted and tied into crosses. Compacts, lighters, change, glasses, ribbons, belts and buckles,… anything personal will do, it seems. Signs of respect, wonder, wishes, hopes, happiness and grief.
These are proof that Christianity, in all it’s forms and permutations, still exists and is strong with the campesinos and country folk around the southwest. There are less obvious signs of other shrines in the area, constructed by non-christians, by the original dwellers of this land. They have nothing to do with Jesus or Mary or the Wise Men, but with other expressions of the supernatural. This is not strange, but understandable when one considers that some people did not, and do not, have the knowledge yet to understand the world and our place in it. We tend to make up stories about what we don’t understand to bring those things into a context where explanation is at least possible, however unlikely. This might be from a wellspring of human spirituality that lives within those beings with conscious minds. Or within most beings with minds of a sufficient complexity. I don’t know, but I suspect the urge that created spirituality and religion is, like Joseph Campbell believed, part of the human condition and endlessly varied in its expression.
Two last things. Spirituality does not necessarily imply supernatural forces or a religious origin, nor does atheism preclude its existence.
The Q Fragments is a novel about how the Jesus story could have happened without the supernatural and religious matrix into which it has been twisted and cemented over the centuries. It is a story that leaves open the door to some kind of human, not divine, spirituality that does not preclude atheists, or anti-theists from it’s consideration.