For the good Christian, the four Gospels of the New Testament are central to belief in Jesus. These gospels (the Christian revelation) are often referred to as the canonical gospels to distinguish them from the many other gospels and writings that belong to forms of Christianity that did not survive or, for other reasons were not included in the Bible. The canonical Gospel we know as The Gospel According to John contains over a dozen stories not found in the three earlier Gospels. The most startling of these stories is that of the apostle Thomas who would not believe his friends and peers who claimed that Jesus had come back from the grave and was alive.
John tells us that shortly following this, Jesus made a special appearance and invited Thomas to touch him, and John gives the moral of the story: ‘believing in Jesus because you have evidence is not Christianity’.
This is a statement that has been overlooked by some portion of every form of Christianity that has come and gone since the creation of the Gospel of John; Christianity is not based on the believer’s connection to the historical Jesus.
The modern believer is faced with an even greater problem, perhaps a new problem, if they need Jesus to be a historical person.
The story of the founder and origin of a religion is part of the sacred narrative of a religion. The believer often accepts this story as history. When seeking the beginnings of religion, we find that there is very little historical information outside of the traditions that transmit the sacred narratives.
Take your pick from among any of the world’s religions; concerning the claims of their origins, not one has the kind of corroborating evidence you would ask for in any pursuit of historical truth.
This lack of information is by no means evidence that the events in the narrative are necessarily untrue; however, the student of religion will recognize, quite quickly, that the isolated and insular nature of sacred narrative applies to all the religions of the world.
Among the more well-known religions, these narratives include the story of miracles, execution and resurrection of Jesus for the Christian, the visitation of an Angel and recitation of the Qur’an to Muhammad and the life of Muhammad for the Muslim, the life and sayings of the Buddha, the life and sayings of the Mahavira for the Jain, the life and sayings of Zarathustra in Zoroastrianism, and the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses and the sacred history of the ancient Hebrews in Judaism.
In Hinduism, the sacred narrative consists of the revealed nature of the Vedas, Upanishads and the epic Mahabharata and Ramayana histories, in Confucianism the life and sayings of Confucius, the sayings of Lao-Tzu and the Daozang for the Taoist, and the life and sayings of Nanak, the ten Sikh Gurus and the succession of the Guru Granth Sahib for the Sikh.
All of the origin-stories from these traditional narratives are, at times, masterful, moving, rewarding and often edifying chronicles of humanity searching, speculating and, in some cases, finding meaning. Indisputably, all are worth knowing, and the study of these traditions belongs to the life-long pursuit of the serious student of religion. But none were meant as history – not in the sense that you or I could ever mean it.