How old was Jesus?

In the previous post, I talked about why atheists tend to think Jesus was a real person. However, we should avoid thinking that much of the information in the canonical New Testament is accurate – even when it pertains to mundane, non-miraculous things.

One of the claims of christian apologists is that Jesus fulfilled 250-300 prophecies from the Old Testament. There are a couple of problems with this. The first is that this counts pretty much anything in the Old Testament to which a parallel can be drawn to the gospel accounts as a prophecy, so that, for example, the story of Moses putting an image of a snake up on a pole is supposed to point to the crucifixion. Right off the bat, therefore, we should be wary of just what, exactly, is supposed to be a messianic prophecy.

The second problem is that the people telling stories about Jesus, and then writing the gospels, believed Jesus was the messiah, and could easily have concocted stories about him fulfilling these prophecies – perhaps even without any deliberate intent to deceive.

As an example, let us consider a prophecy regarding when the messiah was to be born. This was, when I was a christian apologist, one of my favourite prophecies, because it was not something that Jesus could control. The basis of this prophecy is the story in the latter half of Daniel, which was supposed to determine the date of the messiah’s birth. The gospels say Jesus was 30 when he started preaching, and died three years later, allowing us to see that he was born when the messiah was supposed to be born.

But even if we accept that this is a messianic prophecy, this is not persuasive for several reasons.

First, assuming that was when Jesus was born, that might have been part of the reason he believed himself to be the messiah.

Second, perhaps more importantly, we have no reason to believe the gospels on this point. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that early christians disagreed on how old Jesus was when he died. Recall that the bible was not formed into a canonical source of ‘infallible’ books until the emperor Constantine. Now consider the writing of Irenaeus, who is supposed to have been a disciple of Polycarp, who was supposed to have been a disciple of John the Beloved apostle. Irenaeus was aware that many people thought Jesus was 33 when he died, based on the gospel account, but he actually denied that the gospel was accurate on this point. He maintained that Jesus was at least a decade older, probably more. He was not entirely unbiased, because his theology involved the notion that Jesus had to live through every stage of human life, including ‘old age,’ which he seemed to think meant around 50. However, he pointed to the fact that the Jews are recounted in John as saying ‘You are not yet 50, and you claim to have seen Abraham?’ Irenaeus argued that they would not have said it this way unless Jesus were approaching 50, and that if he were in his thirties, they would have said ‘You are not yet 40.’ I am not sure Irenaeus’ argument is all that solid, but the fact remains that here we have a second-generation church father who is maintaining an age for Jesus of more than a decade older than the usual age. Later, of course, the Church would decide that Irenaeus was wrong on this point, perhaps because they liked the gospels and wanted to claim they were infallible so they could be in the canon, or perhaps because they wanted to keep the date of Jesus’ birth consistent with the prophecy, but regardless of why, the fact remains that at this time period not far removed from the time of Jesus, there was some disagreement about how old Jesus was.

Secondly, the age may well have been put into the sources for the synoptic gospels without having any actual evidence. This may have been because someone wanted to bolster the claim that Jesus was the messiah by saying that he was born at the right time, or it may have even been done without such malice. Let us say that someone really already believed Jesus was the messiah, and wanted to figure out when he was born. They might have worked backwards from the prophecy, and then said ‘Ah, so he must have been born at this time, and been thirty when he started preaching.’

So, we should be skeptical even of the hypothesis that Jesus was born when the bible claims. We have a good hypothesis for how such a claim could have gotten mixed into the mythologized story of Jesus (namely, in order to make sure that in this mythology, he was born at the right time), and secondly, the claim was contended by a church father. A contended claim, that could easily have gotten in the story for other reasons, is not a claim that should be accepted.

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