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9 “Facts” You Know For Sure About Jesus That Are Probably Wrong
Valerie Tarico   Mar 1, 2015   ValerieTarico  

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. 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.

  1. Cropped hair, not long. Jewish men at the time of Christ did not 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.
  2. Married, not single. 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. But unlike the Catholic Church, Jews have no tradition of celibacy among religious leaders. Jesus and his disciples would have been practicing Jews, 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 Gospel of Phillip says, “[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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 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 image of a man closer to six feet in height.
  5. Born in a house, not a stable. The miraculous birth story of Jesus is a late, maybe 2nd century addition to the Bible, 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.
  6. ​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).
  7. Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history. Whether Jesus had 12 disciples who were above his other devotees is an open question. The number 12 was considered auspicious by many ancient people, and the fellowship of 12 disciples, who are depicted in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, likely get their count from the same source 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. But since the Gospels echo the story of Joshua, the 12 apostles most closely parallel the 12 tribes of Israel.
  8. 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 three 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.
  9. 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  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

Dr. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist with a passion for personal and social evolution.  In 2005, she co-founded the Progress Alliance of Washington, a collective of future-oriented donors investing in progressive change.


This is about the n-th time I’ve seen this article around the net (the Huffington Post, Facebook, Google+,etc.). I’m a bit surprised that IEET, an organization I appreciate very much, posts this article acritically. Perhaps it may be my misunderstanding, because it is perhaps here to incite discussion. In such a case, let me intervene.

Nevertheless, how ever I respect Valerie Tarico, she is either possibly correct in some assertions (which should be taken with a grain of salt), or blatantly wrong from the point of view of the vast majority of Bible scholars (and I mean all across the spectrum: Christian, Jewish, Agnostic, Atheist, etc.)

1. “Cropped Hair, Not Long”: Actually, there is an exception to this rule, and that is the Nazirites, who had long hair as a sign of consecration. It may be more probable that Jesus had short hair, since he was not a Nazirite (yet, he considered himself consecrated to God as a Messiah or future King of the Jews). So, Tarico’s assertion must be taken with a grain of salt in this case.

2. “Married, not single”: Although it is true that the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is most probably a forgery, Tarico makes a minor mistake (not too important for our discussion). it was not discovered in 2014. According to the alleged story, the fragment was discovered presumably after 1982, and was obtained by its current owner by 1997; its existence was known publicly by 2012. 

About the allegation that Jesus was most probably married and that no religious leader was required to be celibate, the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, and archaeology disagree with Tarico. It is well known that eminent apocalypticists of the time (Jesus included) vowed for celibacy as a way to prepare for the arrival of God’s Kingdom in order to overthrow the evil powers of the world (whose manifestation was the Roman Empire). As such, John the Baptist appeared to be celibate, since there is a notorious absence of his wife or descendance during his ministry and after his death (not alluded at all in any of our sources, not even Josephus). The Essenes in Qumran (as well as the Therapeutes) practiced celibacy as a way of purification. Archaeological remains in Qumran confirm this fact. Jesus himself legitimized celibacy as a way to dedicate oneself to the Kingdom of God, as Paul did also (Matt. 19:1-12; 1 Cor. 7:1-9,26-35). The reason for this is obvious (and was expressed explicitly by Paul as well as John the Baptist, and Jesus): the Kingdom of God *is at hand*, matrimony is a distraction the keeps us from dedicating ourselves to the Lord’s affairs. In the whole New Testament (as well as outside the New Testament) there is reference to Jesus’ father, mother, brothers, and sisters (and it gives us their names) is no reference to Jesus’ wife whatsoever, nor to any of his descendants. On the contrary, Jesus’ mentality was mostly anti-family within his apocalypticist framework (e.g. Matt. 10:34; Mark 13:12-13; Luke 14:26; 9:59-62).

Yes, there is the _Gospel of Philip_ which says that Jesus kissed Mary more than his other disciples. Yet, scholars have known for the longest time that this is not a Romantic kiss (although some wish to interpret it that way). If it were the kiss expressing love for a wife, why were the disciples complaining in that same Gospel? Tarico makes the mistake that almost all of the public does ... it makes an abstraction of the community that originated the Gospel. This writing came from a Gnostic sect (“Gnostic” comes from the Greek “gnosis”, which means “knowledge”), for them, “knowledge” is passed to one another with a kiss. She also makes the mistake of taking the text at face value without qualifying the metaphorical scene that is being told: “the rest of the disciples” represent the orthodox Church that criticize the Gnostics, while that Gnostic sect is represented by Mary, to whom the Lord has given _more knowledge_ than anyone else. In the eyes of the Gnostics, they are the true heirs of Jesus’ teachings. By the way, this literary device was widely used by protoorthodox writings (like John’s Gospel, not using a kiss, but other literary metaphors), and also the so-called “heretical” writings such as the Second Apocalypse of James, another Gnostic Gospel, which tells about how Jesus passed “knowledge” to his brother James with a kiss on his lips.

Finally, the imposition of marriage to the Rabbis was required after the second century, not during the time of Jesus. Besides, Jesus was not a Rabbi in any formal sense (as Pharisees and Sadduccees used to point out).

“Hung on a pole, not necessarily a cross”: This is a non-sequitur. The fact that it may not *necessarily* be a cross, does not mean that he was “definitely” hung on a pole (which is how her statement sounds). Yes, Romans were creative regarding the many ways to torture someone on stauros (in this sense, Peter’s crucifixion upside down rings true). Yet, the conviction that it was on a Cross can be clearly seen in a second or third century graffitti where someone mocks a Christian called Alexamenos, representing Jesus as a donkey (the Alexamenos graffito). The graffito itself agrees with the position of the legs as we know now thanks to an archaeological discovery that highly suggests that some crucified people were nailed through their heels, and in a sitting position.

“Short, not tall.” Let’s take this with a grain of salt, since the fact that Jews in general were not tall does not mean that Jesus was not tall either.

“Born in a house, not a stable.” - No, this was not a second century addition to the Bible. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke conflict on when Jesus was born and where. Yet, both stories were written during the last two decades of the first century (which is when both Gospels were probably written), and for very different reasons. Tarico is correct to point out that these stories don’t talk about a stable, but probably about certain structure of Ancient Palestinian houses where animals were taken care of (that is in the case of the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of Matthew makes no such claim). Yet, because it is evident that both stories were forged out of the Old Testament (and NOT from Ancient Egypt nor anywhere else), and it also includes miracolous accounts, it is highly probably that neither story is true. Most probably Jesus was born in Nazareth, since there it is where he came from originally (John 1:45-46). As archaeology has revealed, Nazareth was an insignificant hamlet in the rural area of Galilee. Stories were made up later that he was born in Bethlehem, either to fulfill a prophecy (Matt. 2:5) or to prefigure David’s kingship, as he was supposedly David’s descendant (Luke 2:1-5).

There was a later second century tradition that he was born in a stable, but this statement was never added to the New Testament.

“​Named Joshua, not Jesus”: This is true, but it is such a trivial matter that I’m surprised she included this. But hey! I know of cases where some people have stated that Paul wrote in the original English King James Version ... so, I guess some people didn’t know that Jesus was called Joshua?!

“Number of apostles (12) from astrology, not history.” That is absolutely, 100% false. Scholars and historians have known for ages that the reason why Jesus elected 12 top disciples (the term “apostles” appeared only later), it is because Jesus believed that he would be given kingship, and establish the 12 disciples as judges of the TWELVE TRIBES OF ISRAEL (Matt. 19:28). Neither the Gospels nor any other document related to Christianity at the time or later even remotely suggests any connection with astrology. From a historical standpoint, this hypothesis is bogus for lack of evidence, and for ignoring the simplest and most obvious explanation of why he chose 12 close disciples.

“Prophecies recalled, not foretold”: Although I mostly agree with her regarding this particular issue, we have to know that Jesus did prophesy some things that became true. Most scholars believe that he might actually have foretold the destruction of the Temple (at least the Markan version of it—- Mark 13:1-13). This does not reveal necessarily any supernatural power. It was VERY common at the time to find lots and lots of apocalypticist prophets (as Jesus was) prophesying the destruction of the Temple due to the corruption of its priesthood. These kinds of prophecies can be seen also in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Some Jesus quotes not from Jesus, others uncertain”: Although the general statement is true, that Jesus did not actually say some of the things attributed to him in the Gospels, the choices Tarico selects can be true or not. Apparently Jesus didn’t say: “He who is free of sin cast the first stone” (this is part of a fragment inserted later in John’s Gospel), as Tarico does point out. Yet some (not all) of the Beatitudes may have been said by Jesus, as well as a more primitive version of our traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule.

Finally, I have next to no issue with Tarico’s last statements which I almost fully endorse. I would add, though, that we should pay more attention to what Bible scholars are actually saying about these issues, in the very same way that we should pay attention to what scientists have to say about issues such as Global Warming. We should avoid a lot of literature out there which people accept as true because it is “forbidden knowledge” (and that’s fascinating to our minds), when in reality they are pure fabrications or sheer misundestandings of the past. Reality, though, may be less fascinating in THAT particular aspect, but if we follow what scholars are actually telling us, we may discover a whole new world out there that could be just as or far more fascinating.

Thank you, Prosario2000, for your careful analysis.  As you note, my aim was to challenge popular assumptions of knowledge and provoke discussion rather than to provide a definitive answer to questions that are outside of my expertise (and about which scholars themselves vastly disagree). 

Other than the date of the Jesus’ Wife papyrus, which I have now corrected at my own site, the one point you believe to be clearly in error is the attribution of the number 12 (apostles) to astrotheology.  As you note, the idea of 12 apostles most directly derives from the 12 tribes of Israel.  My poorly articulated point was that the number 12, as an auspicious number, predates the 12 tribes, which themselves likely have their roots in more ancient traditions of astrotheology.  At my website, I have clarified this point as follows:

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.

Perhaps it’s also helpful to distinguish between Jesus the physical human being who probably existed, was probably baptised by John the Baptist and was probably crucified under Pontius Pilate, and Jesus the Incubator of Ideas.

Why do I refer to “Jesus the Incubator of Ideas”? Because I think it’s becoming increasingly important to distinguish clearly between biological life-forms (including physical human beings) and what I like to call (perhaps somewhat misleadingly, but I haven’t come across or come up with a better term yet) “technological life-forms”. Just as biological life forms nurture and propagate genes, “technological” life forms nurture and propagate ideas (memes). The latter include individual people (but as persons, not as biological life-forms per se), but they also include other conceptual entities such as companies and other organisations. Anything that can he plausibly identified as a structure that nurtures and propagates ideas counts as a “technological life form” in this sense, the significance being that biological evolution is currently being overtaken by technological evolution as the key driver for change.

So in addition to Jesus the biological life-form that probably existed 2000 years ago, there is Jesus the Person, who in a sense really does live on, in people’s imaginations and in our culture. And associated with this second Jesus is a whole bunch of other ideas, some helpful, some less so. On this Easter Sunday, let us strive to ensure that Jesus becomes more associated with helpful ideas, and less with unhelpful ones.

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