Was Jesus historical, a real human being? Did the man called Shakespeare really write the plays that bear his name? Two of history’s great conspiracies.
I am not, I think, a crazy person. I do not believe that Oswald had help killing Kennedy. I do not think the American government, Bush, or the Saudi government had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. I do not believe the Earth has ever been visited by aliens from outer space. I do not believe in mind waves or the paranormal in general. I do admit I am susceptible to believing in some things simply because I’ve been raised to assume them to be true. Everyone is. Most of the things we believe are true, we do so simply because it has never occurred to us to question their truth. Jesus and Shakespeare are like that.
Everyone believes Jesus was historical, a real human being. Because this is never questioned and has been assumed for so long, we think it must be true. Everyone believes the man named Shakespeare wrote the plays he is given credit for, so he must have written them. If only there were evidence for a historical Jesus or a writing Shakespeare.
Was Jesus real?
Of these two conspiracies, Jesus actually matters. He matters because hundreds of millions of people believe he was both the and a real human being; they would be disappointed to learned this was not true. However, they might be encouraged to know the religion of Christianity does not depended on Jesus being historical. Why does he have to be historical? During the first and second centuries, many Christians believed Jesus to been a spirit who came down from heaven and simply posed as body named Jesus. Some thought he was just a spirit that took over a body of someone named Jesus. The idea that Jesus had to be a real human came later. I supposed the thought that would bother to become human is heartwarming, but it is not required for belief. Since, at that time, the heavens were believed to consist of many layers, I think seven, it could be that the earliest Christians thought Jesus had descended from a higher to a lower layer of heaven and been crucified by demons at that lower level (this is a theory I once read that sounded interesting).
Paul, the earliest Christian writer and the only writer whose life seems to have overlapped the time Jesus is thought to have lived, does not give any historical information about Jesus, other than his name and his death on a cross. Paul never mentions John the Baptist even when discussing baptism. And he never discusses the twelve disciples. I know what you are thinking; Paul does mention James, John, and Cephas (Paul?), but the belief that they are the same as those mentioned in the Gospels is an assumption we believe because we have been raised to do so. Paul tells us no stories about their adventures with Jesus. He calls them apostles and we assume an apostle is the same as a disciple.
What about those Gospels? Why aren’t they proof Jesus was historical. Granted, they are proof of a belief concerning something named Jesus. But the problem with the Gospels is that they read like a Greek myth. Indeed, most of the elements in the Gospels have counterparts in Greek mythology. I could do a whole post comparing Jesus to Greek mythic heroes (and I probably will), but here are a few things: Jesus is the son of a human and , so is Heracles (and many others); Jesus defeats death, so does Perseus when he cuts off the head of Medusa; Jesus needs help carrying his cross, Heracles needs help lighting the fire that will kill him; Jesus ascends to heaven, Heracles ascends to Olympus and Perseus inherits a heaven on earth complete with the most beautiful girl and a kingdom.
Did Shakespeare really write those plays?
What about Shakespeare? I am almost certain Jesus did not exist, but I’m not as certain Shakespeare did not write the plays he is credited with. But I suspect he did not. How is it possible to believe Shakespeare is not the writer of his own plays? How could Shakespeare’s be attached to the plays if he did not write them? The argument is Shakespeare was the agent for whoever did write the plays. The true writer of the plays gave them to Shakespeare to have them produced. Shakespeare job in this was to pretend to be the writer; Shakespeare might be thought of as a living pseudonym. Someone wrote the play, they did not want their identity known, so they need a pseudonym and they needed someone to act as their stand-in to register the play with the government and to answer questions if any were asked.
The reason why the writer would wish to hide his identity is this: Back in the 1590s and 1600s, the writing and producing of dramatic plays was frown on by the upper class. The religious attitudes and feelings of that time, these are the days of the puritans, caused this thinking. Because of this the production of plays for the public was always done in the red-light district of the town. Any upper class, highly respected individual, especial if he was close to Queen Elizabeth would avoid all associations with production of plays and the actors who dramatized them. That’s the first part of the argument against Shakespeare.
The second part of this argument is: The writing of the Shakespearean plays would require someone of great learning. The person would need to be more than a writing genius, they would need much learned knowledge. They would also need to access to books and texts that were not available to most commoners. Couple that with the lack of evidence that Shakespeare ever received any formal education, although it is assumed he attended the local grammar school at ‘Stratford on the Avon’. The records from that grammar school burned up in a fire so there is no proof he really did. But anyway, there is also no proof of any higher education at any of the colleges. So it is thought he could not have known or been comfortable with much of the knowledge found in the plays.
That is the basic argument against Shakespeare and it is not impossible, but is it true? The problem with this argument is we have almost no evidence about anything Shakespeare did. Over the entire lifetime of Shakespeare, the facts of his life that we know would only fill a few pages. This was after all the 1590s and 1600s. However, although we have no proof he had schooling, it could be he did. Perhaps, if the teacher at the local grammar school recognized Shakespeare was a genius, he could have found a position for Shakespeare in an aristocratic home where more schooling would have been possible. But if that was true, Shakespeare’s poor handwriting and spelling is a mystery. We have several signatures from Shakespeare (the only handwriting we have of his) and they are all poorly written and spelled differently. Seems odd for that time period.
We all love controversies. These are two I think are genuine. The first one is important, the second one is merely very interesting.
Incompetence is a better explanation than conspiracy in most human activity. Peter Bergen