Tag Archives: historical Jesus

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Myth-story

ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.

CompositeJesus

While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.