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De Humanist December 2002
Was Jesus Caesar?
by Prof. PAUL B. CLITEUR, Ph.D.
professor at the Universities of Leiden and Delft, The Netherlands
translated by Tommie Hendriks
Just like many other philosophers I am an admirer of Socrates. That Socrates did exist we know because he is mentioned in Plato’s dialogues as a historical figure. The philosophically interested soldier Xenophon, too, has written down his ‘memories’ of Socrates. Furthermore in places there are some references by other authors.
Let us assume that somebody writes a book showing that Socrates never existed (by the way, such books have been written, although they have convinced only a few). The references to Socrates in Plato and Xenophon are either falsifications or wrong for some other reasons. Does that make any difference to me?
I don’t think so. Socrates remains a great philosopher. His philosophy is no less impressive when it is the philosophy of a literary character. With a figure as Jesus Christ things are different. If there is ample proof that Jesus Christ did not exist, the Christian faith will be hit in the heart. About 550 the core of the Christian doctrine was formulated in the Apostolic creed:
‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almigthty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. (...)’
Well, surely I’m aware that people considering themselves Christians question divers parts of this credo. However, the question is how much you may cross off and still maintain you are a Christian. Often the historical existence of Jesus is taken as a limit and I think this is correct. If Jesus is just a fantasy character of the Gospel writers, thus ‘invented’, then Christianity is being hit in its very essence. In particular his crucifixion and resurrection are often put forward as historical facts which you really have to believe, in order not to completely unsettle Christianity. Notorious people crossing off articles of faith like the theologian H.M. Kuitert have therefore held onto this sort of issues as long as possible.
Now, there are people who have defended that Jesus never existed. The Hegelian Bruno Bauer, for instance, did so already in 1850, and more recently it is defended by one G.A. Wells. However, a problem with this denial is that then the cult around Christ is a mystery. How could it have emerged?
That question is now being answered by the polyglot, linguist and philosopher Francesco Carotta. His thesis is that the cult around Jesus is a continuation of the cult around Caesar. The two cults could merge into one another by a series of errors in writing, mistakes in the oral tradition and other misunderstandings.
I admit: a spectacular thesis. But whoever reads the overwhelming amount of material Carotta brings up for this thesis will have to recognize that he has not skated on thin ice. For me this book is the key which opens up a lot of mysteries around the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Of course, the consequences of the Carotta thesis are enormous. Around Christmas and Easter we actually revere the figure of Caesar. Also, we are not living in a ‘Christian culture’, but a ‘Caesarian culture’. André Rouvoet leads the CaesarUnion (ChristenUnie, a small Christian political party in The Netherlands) and Jan Peter Balkenende the Caesarian Democratic Appeal (Christen Democratisch Appèl, a big Christian political party).
Perhaps you should put it this way: our culture has never been christianized. The ambitions of Erasmus, Voltaire and other humanists to constantly draw inspiration from the Classical Culture (and not the Jewish-Christian one) is all of a sudden receiving an enormous impulse from an unexpected quarter. We were never anything other than humanists.
Carotta, Francesco, Was Jezus Caesar? Over de Romeinse oorsprong van het Christendom, Een onderzoek, vertaald door Tommie Hendriks met een nawoord van Erika Simon, Uitgeverij Aspekt, Soesterberg 2002, 432 pp., ISBN: 9059110692
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