Jesus has been described as the best known figure in history, and also the least known. If you mentioned the name “Jesus” and someone asked Jesus who?, you might blink. Or laugh. Even people who don’t think Jesus was God, mostly believe they know a fair bit about him. You might be surprised that some of your most basic assumptions about Jesus are probably wrong.
We have no record of anything that was written about Jesus by eyewitnesses or other contemporaries during the time he would have lived or for decades thereafter, and as best scientists can tell, all physical relics of his life are later fakes. Nonetheless, based on archeological digs and artifacts, ancient texts and art, linguistic patterns, and even forensic science, we know a good deal about the time and culture in which the New Testament is set. This evidence points to some startling conclusions about who Jesus likely was—and wasn’t.
- Cropped hair, not long. Jewish men at the time of Christ did not typically wear their hair long. A Roman triumphal arch of the time period depicts Jewish slaves with short hair. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addresses male hair length. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” (1 Corinthians 11:14 NRSV). During the 1960’s conservative Christians quoted this verse to express their disgust against the hippy movement and to label it as anti-Christian.
- Married, not single. In 2012, when an ancient papyrus scrap came to light referring to the wife of Jesus (most likely a forgery), some Catholics and Evangelicals were scandalized at the very thought. But unlike the Catholic Church, Jews have no tradition of celibacy among religious leaders. Ancient writers documented exceptions like the Apostle Paul or the Essene sect precisely because they violated the norm. In the Gospels, Jesus is called rabbi; and all great rabbis that we know of were married. A rabbi being celibate would have been so unusual that some modern writers have argued that Jesus must have been gay. But a number of ancient texts, including the canonical New Testament, point to a special relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. For example, the non-canonical Gospel of Phillip says, “[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [word missing].”
- Hung on a pole, not necessarily a cross. For centuries scholars have known that the Greek New Testament word “stauros,” which gets translated into English as cross, can refer to a device of several shapes, commonly a single upright pole, “torture stake” or even tree. The Romans did not have a standard way of crucifying prisoners, and Josephus tells us that during the siege of Jerusalem soldiers nailed or tied their victims in a variety of positions. Early Christians may have centered in on the vertical pole with a crossbeam because it echoed the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of life, or simply because it was more artistically and symbolically distinctive than the alternatives. Imagine millions of people wearing a golden pole on a chain around their necks.
- Short, not tall. The typical Jewish man at the time of the Roman Empire was just over five feet tall, which makes this a best guess for the height of Jesus. That he is typically depicted taller likely derives from the mental challenge people have in distinguishing physical stature from other kinds of stature. Great men are called “big men” and “larger than life.” In ancient times they often were assigned divine parentage and miraculous births, and the idea that Jesus was uniquely divine has created a strong pull over time to depict him as taller than is likely. A good illustration of this is the Shroud of Turin, which is just one of many such Jesus-shrouds that circulated during medieval times and which bears the (now reproduced) image of a man closer to six feet in height.
- Born in a house, not the stable of an inn. The miraculous birth story of Jesus is a late, maybe 2nd century addition to the gospels, and consequently it contains many fascinating mythic elements and peculiarities. But the idea that Jesus was born in a stable got added to the Christmas story even later. In the original narrative, Joseph and Mary probably would have stayed with relatives, and the phrase “no room for them in the inn (gr: kataluma)” is better translated “no room for them in the upper room.” Later storytellers did not understand that people of the time might bring animals into their ground floor, as in Swiss housebarns, and they assumed that the presence of a manger implied a stable.
- Named Joshua, not Jesus. The name Joshua (in Hebrew Y’hoshuʿa meaning “deliverance” or “salvation”), was common among Jews in the Ancient Near East as it is today. Joshua and Jesus are the same name, but are translated differently in our modern Bible to distinguish Jesus from the Joshua of the Old Testament, who leads the Hebrew people to the Promised Land. In actuality, though, the relationship between the two figures is fascinating and important. Some scholars believe that the New Testament gospels are mostly updated retellings of the more ancient Joshua story, remixed with episodes from stories of Elisha and Elijah and Moses. A modern parallel can be found in the way that Hollywood writers have reworked Shakespearean tropes and plot elements into dozens of modern movies (though for a very different purpose).
- Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history. Whether Jesus had 12 disciples who ranked above his other devotees is an open question, as their names vary from list to list. Since the Gospels echo the story of Joshua, the “12” apostles most immediately mirror the 12 tribes of Israel. But the number 12 was considered auspicious by many ancient people, including the Israelites, and the 189 repetitions of the number 12 in the Bible ultimately may derive from the same pre-historical roots as the 12 signs of the zodiac and 12 months of the year. Astrotheology or star worship preceded the Hebrew religion, and shaped both the Bible and Western religions more broadly. One might point to the 12 Olympian gods or 12 sons of Odin, or the 12 days of Christmas or 12 “legitimate” successors to the prophet Mohammed.
- Prophecies recalled, not foretold. Even people who aren’t too sure about the divinity of Jesus sometimes think that the way he fulfilled prophecies was a bit spooky, like the writings of Nostradamus. In reality, Scooby Doo could solve this one in a single episode with four pieces of information: First, Old Testament prophecies were well known to 1st century Jews, and a messianic figure who wanted to fulfill some of these prophecies could simply do so. For example, in the book of Matthew, Jesus seeks a donkey to ride into Jerusalem “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet” (Matthew 21:4). Second, “gospels” are a genre of devotional literature rather than objective histories, which means that the authors had every reason to shape their stories around earlier predictions. Third, scholars now believe that some Bible texts once thought to be prophecies (for example in the Book of Revelation) actually relate to events that were past or current at the time of writing. Finally, a psychological phenomenon known as the “Barnum Effect” ensures that those who want to believe in prophecies (or astrology, for that matter) will find amazing coincidences if they look hard enough.
- Some Jesus quotes not from Jesus, others uncertain. Lists of favorite Jesus sayings abound online. Some of the most popular are the Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, etc.) or the story of the woman caught in adultery (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone) or the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which, we are told, sums up the Law and the Prophets.) Which words actually from Jesus? This question has been debated fiercely by everyone from 3rd century Catholic Councils to the 20th Century Jesus Seminar. Even Thomas Jefferson weighed in, but much remains unclear. The New Testament Gospels were written long after Jesus would have died, and no technology existed with which to record his teachings in real time, unless a he wrote them down himself, which he didn’t. We can be confident that at least some of the wise and timeless words and catchy proverbs attributed to Jesus are actually from earlier or later thinkers. For example, the Golden Rule was articulated before the time of Christ by the Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who similarly said it was the “whole Torah.” By contrast, the much loved story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t appear in manuscripts until the 4th century. Attributing words (or whole texts) to a famous person was common in the Ancient Near East, because it gave those words extra weight. Small wonder, then, that so many genuinely valuable insights ended up, in one way or another, paired with the name of Jesus.
The person of Jesus, if indeed there was a single historical rabbi at the root of our traditions, is shrouded in the fog of history leaving us only with a set of hunches and traditions that far too often get treated as knowledge. The “facts” I have listed here are largely trivial; it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus was tall or short, or how he cut his hair. But it does matter, tremendously, that “facts” people claim to know about how Jesus saw himself, and God and humanity are equally tenuous. In the words of Mark Twain: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
The teachings attributed to Jesus mix enduring spiritual and moral insights with irrelevancies and Judaica and bits of Iron Age culture, some of which are truly awful. That leaves each of us, from the privileged vantage of the 21st century, with both a right and a responsibility to consider the evidence and make our own best guesses about what is real and how we should then live. A good starting place might be a little more recognition that we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to think, and a lot of what we know for sure is probably wrong.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
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Spot on. Our idealized version of what Jesus looked like would no doubt blind many believers to his real physical presence if by some “miracle” he were to walk among them today. In fact this cartoon I discovered recently illustrates this condition that exaggerates the image of Jesus for some today.
For some reason the link didn’t take on my last response so here t’is
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I am currently reading Resa Aslan’s “Zealot” which supports the tenor of your comments while giving a fascinating reconstruction of the politics and life of the period.
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really interesting – i hope you are getting lots of followers and page views and forwards etc.!
Date: Thu, 26 Feb 2015 08:50:10 +0000 To: email@example.com
“Named Joshua, not Jesus.” – Interestingly, but relatively irrelevant, was the fact that the first name of Barabbas – actually, “Bar Abbas,” or “Son of Abbas” – the criminal who was freed in Jesus’ place, was also Y’hoshuʿa, possibly so called because as the leader of a faction of rebels who hoped to take Israel back from Rome, he also might have been seen as a deliverer or savior.
Symbolically, in offering the largely Jewish mob, as depicted in the NT, a choice between Y’hoshuʿa Bar Yusef (“Son of Joseph”) and Y’hoshuʿa Bar Abbas, the author may have been offering his Jewish audience a choice between physical liberty or spiritual freedom.
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“Born in a house, not a stable” – the “birth in a stable” fable is extremely important to the NT author, in establishing to his Jewish audience that Jesus was in fact sent as the sacrificial lamb for his people.
In ancient times, this was a military tower erected to view into the valley on the edge of Bethlehem. The original history of the watch towers is lost in the mists of pre-history, doubtless built and maintained by one of the many nations that conquered the Levant, only to have themselves conquered by the next generation of tyrants. Real estate agents in those days, made a fortune.
As times passed, the watch towers located along that road came to serve a dual purpose, at times used for the safety of country, but also used to watch over large flocks of sheep.
The flocks in Bethlehem were raised for very special purposes. The shepherds that cared for these flocks would have been specially trained for their job, as a special flock of sheep were raised by rabbinical shepherds from Jerusalem. These shepherds were very knowledgeable of the ceremonial laws of cleanliness and took very seriously their job that the sheep were to be protected from harm and hurt.
Bethlehem was the birthplace of these lambs and since their final destination was that of being offered as a religious sacrifice in the temple at Jerusalem, special care had to be taken that they were not blemished. Only a perfect lamb would be acceptable. These people’s god wouldn’t settle for factory seconds.
Migdal Eder (above) was a two-story tower that was covered to protect the watchman who looked over the horizon to be on guard of any impending danger from both human and animal enemies. The lower level of the tower was specifically used as the place where the lambs from the flock were born. It was ceremoniously clean and orderly.
According to historic writings, underneath the watch tower itself was a cave-like lower portion. This is where the ewes would be taken to be protected and cared for while they delivered their newborn lambs. Temple ritual would have required that the birthing place for these lambs be ceremonially clean, so a lamb used for sacrifice would likely not be born in a dirty environment as we would think of a stable in our Western mindset.
When a lamb was born, it was immediately wrapped in swaddling clothes (described historically as strips of cloth) to keep them from injuring or otherwise blemishing themselves and placed in a small stall or manger, where it could temporarily recuperate until it gained strength. This was done so they would be protected from harming themselves on their unstable legs. Then, at some point, they would be examined by a priest to ensure they were fit for use as a sacrifice. This was the only function of the lower level of the Migdal Eder.
It’s easy to see how the legend of the birth of Yeshua (Jesus) would have been crafted to comply with the requirements of these ancient rituals, even to the point of inventing a non-existent Roman census, in order to facilitate his birth in Bethlehem, traditional birthplace of sacrificial lambs.
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excellent! i love reading this sort of thing.
So many people, Manny, who accept the Bible, never bother researching how it was constructed. They call it faith, I call it naïveté. If there is truth in a religion, it should certainly be strong enough to withstand investigation. A REAL god would see to that.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
— Buddha –
*** drum roll… and Curtain!
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As migdals were originally built as military watchtowers, enabling the guards of the occupying forces to see for miles, there were many of them in ancient Israel, mostly located at intervals along the “King’s Highway.” One – Migdal Nunia (“Fish Tower”) – was located near the Sea of Galilee. Just as Yeshua was known as a “Nazarene,” having allegedly come from Nazareth, so Mary “Magdalene” – corrupted from Migdalene – would have come from an area near a migdal, possibly Nunia itself.
As far as is known, however, only Migdal Eder, located between the temple at Jerusalem and the “little town of Bethlehem,” was known to be used as a birthing room for sacrificial lambs, likely due to the cavern located at its base.
Raised a catholic & long, long time ago realized the information in the book called the bible was skewed. As more documented, historical truths are uncovered it confirms my original feelings about this book being a fable. Now if only Mohamed’s followers would do a little more research on their man, they may uncover some very important facts that would change the way they see their hero.
Murielle, excellent choice of words!
Well, I don’t think the Bible is totally skewed when it comes using it to studying Middle Eastern warfare 6, 000 years ago. There is this military professor named Richard Gabriel who is a military expert on ancient warfare in the Middle East particularly the Israeli military. He was on the History Channel where he the main person in an episode titled Bible Battles where he studied the Bible from the perceptive of a simple infantry soldier and talk about the military commanders like Moses, Saul, etc., tactics, weapons, and battles of the Israelis from the time they left Egypt to the time they conquer the land that is Israel, Garza, and the West Bank. In this episode, there was a segment where it mention a British military officer who was studying the Bible while the British were fighting the Turks in 1917 Palestine. This officer was reading about a battle (can’t recalled what the battle was), where the Bible mention a pass where one of the combatants use it to defeat their enemy. That British officer went looking for the pass, found it, and then use the pass to beat the Turks. Dr. Gabriel’s way of looking at the Bible from a military perspective just blew me away and I no longer look at the Bible as a religious book, turn me into an atheist and help me leave my religion and not believe in God. Of course, I would not be surprise if many hard core religious people view Dr. Gabriel as being not a good religious person and being anti-God because he use logic and reason on how the Israelis won instead of believing that it was God’s will and help that cause the Israelis to win.
Ms. Tarico, where do you find all this information for your articles? As Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would say “Fascinating” when it comes to digging up all this information. I wish I had access to all this knowledge when I was young; although, I don’t think the religious authorities and my parents would go berserk when I present them this information.
Thank you, Gunther. I get information from many sources. Some of it I know, at least vaguely, because I attended an evangelical Bible college, so I know where to start looking. Also, a whole host of friends forward me articles and links they think might be of interest. Lastly, the internet is a great repository of all kinds of information–although it needs to be sorted as there’s plenty of hogwash along with the good–much like the Bible in that regard. :)
Good closing. What it comes down to is no one needs to know historical details of any of their preferred gods, goddesses, or whatever idols and teachers they follow simply because it won’t make a bit of difference to anyone who claims to live by “faith” – which means whatever I want it to mean. I have studied people all my life, being curious about the species, and until recently I thought that any individual would have a sense of morality, of right and wrong, from within. But wiser people than I knew long ago that wasn’t so. People do not possess a built-in “standard” of right and wrong at all. So certain people, mostly but not always religious leaders, tried to set up “standards” for their people to follow, in some cases, to prevent total chaos and anarchy; in most cases to gain and maintain power over them. So we got organized religion and through that, or alongside that, government. All that would be well if these “powers” hadn’t become utterly corrupt through the power they arrogated to themselves. So we have endless conflict and wars because we cannot agree on how we should treat one another without referring to some teaching or doctrine, all of which are forever being reinterpreted to suit whomever is in power, or want to get in power. It doesn’t matter in the least to me whether Jesus ever existed, or did not. I eschew religion and politics and use money only as a convenient tool that has no other value. Later in life I decided that I had to decide, by myself and for myself, how I would engage life with others. I came to a startling conclusion: life is “given” to us that we may experience the “chance” to learn how to serve without any expectation of returns. I say startling because that answered my questions about “man” and gave me a sure purpose. If – big “if” – man was willing, individual by individual, to practice compassion towards all others, all comers, s/he would soon learn that peace is found in compassion and service. It will never be found in quest for personal comfort, safety or being of a “right” belief system which, oxymoronically, means living in fear.
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The shortest path to finding one’s self, lies in losing one’s self in the service of others.
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Absolutely true. Is this your personal discovery, or is it a quote from some famous dead guy? :)
I’m not dead yet, but I’m working on it. Nope – all mine.
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“Whoever finds their (assumed) life will lose it, and whoever loses their (assumed) life for my (Jesus) sake will find it.” Surely that’s what we aspire to – life in its fullness.
To find our true selves in honourable relationships with others, is the journey we’re on.
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If you could find a way to get your articles in Spanish, you would get a shot at reaching some of the 350 million Spanish speaking people who would love to read what we enjoy from you, in countries where the catholic church has the only material they read and hear. Check the Dr. Mercola’s website and you’ll see how handy is the way they have it.
Thank you. Good suggestion.
Well, again, a good post packed to the roof with much information.
The danger though in succinct explanations of complex topics is too overstate the case. ( I been there, done that:-)
#2 Married, not single.
While it is true that most Jews, especially rabbis were married, there are the exceptions such as Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, etc. Even Paul, though some scholars think Paul was married before he became a follower of Jesus.
#9 Some Jesus quotes… and “The person of Jesus, if indeed there was such a person…”
My own take on this is that one can have a scholarly historical interest in such a question. (Heck, I think of how many tomes I’ve read and research and thinking done on the subject over the years.)
But, in the practical ethical everyday life of most humans, whether Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, etc. actually said what has been attributed to them by later followers isn’t a significant priority. If Jesus didn’t literally give the Sermon on the Mount or tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan, some one or some individuals somewhat like him did.
So on a daily level one can take such advice of “Jesus”‘ alleged point in the Good Samaritan or take the words of Muhammad or take the words of Krishna or the advice of the million and one other ethical teachers or military rulers in history. And that will make all the difference.
History is very complex. Think about how many Islamic scholars, as well as secular ones disagree about what Muhammad allegedly said and did. Huge differences.
Even in the case of recent leaders such as Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, there are very strong differences about what exactly Smith did or said.
One can read a scholar such as Richard Bushman, winner in the past of the Bancroft Prize for history and many other awards. In Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman presents a carefully detailed biography of Joseph Smith which is considerably different from some other historians.
Whatever Odysseus, Achilles, Brutus, Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Muhammad, Smith did and said aren’t too important today. It’s our use of their alleged statements and behavior as ethical leaders is where the tire meets the road.
I would agree with you completely, Daniel, until someone tries to convince me or others that one or more of the above men was the son of a god and that I was going to burn for eternity if I didn’t surrender my life to him. Then I get a little testy.
Then we both agree, because one of the main reasons I finally came to the conclusion that Christianity can’t be true, is from dealing with Augustinians and Calvinists repeatedly claiming God is glorified by foreordaining billions of humans to eternal damnation, etc.
or in the unforgettable words of the great “private dick” Harry Crumb: “Believe what you will but don’t believe it here.”
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Just what the mystical gnostic gospel of Philip was trying to say is debated but the “kiss” is generally not (outside the likes of Tom Hanks movies) seen as romantic. See, e.g., “the kiss” referenced here: http://www.jesuschristsavior.net/Church.html
Also, it is quite possible for a Jewish prophet or leader not to be married. Paul doesn’t appear to have married. John the Baptist doesn’t appear to have married. It was atypical, yes, but not unknown. If Jesus was married, there is a reasonable chance there would be more evidence of it than some gnostic gospel written long after the fact that far from clearly even says he had a “wife.” Even some sympathetic only said there was a POSSIBILITY it could be true.
The other things are overall sound enough though “probably wrong” for one or two of them also probably is not shown. The stable is part of a fable birth narrative. From what I can tell, it’s possible that it wasn’t a cross, but I do think the evidence makes it probable it was. Matthew particularly sought out to show how certain things were fulfillment of prophecies, but repeatedly seems to have confused what the texts (in part given the Greek translation used) probably meant. One example given is having Jesus come in on two animals when the original was just using a literary technique of doublets for effect. It is not totally clear if he had twelve apostles (the gospels appear to be unsure about a few of the names & only some of them really have much to do) but if he did, it is reasonable to think it was to stand for the twelve tribes. “Twelve” had many meanings in ancient times, yes, particularly given the twelve months.
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Love your work, but I am encountering a lot of flak over a couple of items I mentioned to a mail list I participate in,
The first concerns the height of Jews in Palestine at the time of Jesus. While there doesn’t seem to be any direct data online on the matter, what data there is suggests a more probably height of at least 5’6″. May I ask your sources for the height of Jesus?
The second concerns a mention of a scrap of papyrus that you said was found in 2014. the Xian correspondents are claiming that this is the “wife of Jesus” scrap revealed in 2012, and that it is a hoax, as described in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Jesus%27_Wife.
And yes, I know that your reference to it was so much an aside as to be negligible, but you know how people are when they think they can discredit you.
Anyway, thanks for any light you can shed on these issues.
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Thank you, Carl. I have not followed subsequent research regarding the papyrus scrap and have modified my article as follows: “When an ancient papyrus scrap was found in 2014 referring to the wife of Jesus (most likely a forgery), some Catholics and Evangelicals were scandalized at the very thought.” As you note, the debate over whether early Christians perceived Jesus to be married does not derive from this scrap, though if authentic, it certainly would have provided some evidence in that direction. Regarding the average height in the Ancient Near East during the Iron Age, here is one article indicating an average height just over five feet: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a234/1282186/. Here is the most detailed information I can find about the height difference between modern Jews and other ethnicities, which suggests that there is some inherited tendency toward shorter stature: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13993-stature.
“I wish I had access to all this knowledge when I was young; although, I don’t think the religious authorities and my parents would go berserk when I present them this information.”
What I had meant to say was I don’t think the religious authorities and my parents would have not like it and would go berserk when I present them this information.
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The search for the historical Jesus is quite a search. My favorite book on the subject is “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” by Albert Schweitzer.
in the middle eastern churches that still use the Aramaic (i.e. Syriac Orthodox and Catholic, Assyrian and Chaldean) the name of Jesus and the name of Joshua is still the same yeshou’
Lots of Christians left offensive comments in response to this article at various sites, but here is one of the ugliest: The article was written by jewish bastard.Jesus was NOT a dirty hairy jew but white skinned blond Holy man totally different from them. According to PILATE’s spies who reported to Roman Governor of Judea that Jesuws is of white skin,blond-golden hair and speak of love and peace in contrast of the local crowd with black curly hair hairy faces and long beards, filthy look and minds. Pilate letters are still in Vatican libraries.
jesus was holy man with Godly spirit or Nordic Pleiadian wise man hated by filthy Pharisee crooks and nothing has changed since then
“Pilate letters are still in Vatican libraries.” – I’m amazed that someone of such limited literary skills is privy to Vatican archives. I’d love to see those letters, suppose he could trot out a couple of authenticated copies?
Ms. Valerie What does :) mean? Thanks
It’s just a sideways smile.
That wasn’t my question, Valerie, it was Gunther’s.
I thought your Buddha quote looked suspiciously modern, so I searched on the first line and came up with this:
If true, I was unaware of it. However, if, in fact, it did not come from Buddha, that in no way diminishes the validity of the words, only of the accreditation.
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Jesus was a myth, so why all the fuss? If you don’t understand myth and analogy and prefer to mistake religion for history, you just will never get it. http://jesusneverexisted.com
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