Jesus of Nazareth.
Who is he? From the beginning, there have been claims and counter-claims by individuals with their own agendas. Scholars such as Bultmann have argued that the historical Jesus is unknowable.
I dispute this.
I say the real Jesus is knowable, and is worth knowing.
If you are a radical liberal, i.e., if you are "offended" by Jesus calling God "Father" rather than "Parent", then I hope that you will find some way to do something useful for your neighbors in need, instead of just posturing and complaining. Please leave now.
If you are a radical biblical literalist, i.e., if you believe Noah's ark is literal history rather than meaningful fiction (perhaps based on an actual local flood), then you are blessed with a simple faith that should be a great help to you in leading a good life. My approach will not be of any use to you. And I am the people that you've heard so many horrible things about. Having been a Christian for almost thirty years, I have learned that nothing I can say or do will convince either the far-right or the far-left that I am a decent human being. Please leave now.
If you are wondering whether to become a Christian, or if you are already one of us but are wondering about the current media stories, then I hope I can help.
If you love someone, you want to know that person, as that person really is. If you believe, as I do, that Jesus holds the keys to the nature and final destiny of every other human being, the quest becomes even more important.
Since I'm a man of science, and since my openness to the supernatural is secondary, I'm accustomed to dealing with probabilities rather than "proof". When I evaluate claims about history, I cannot do experiments, but must rely on information passed down to me, and on my assessment of the reliability of my informants.
I've also learned about the tremendous peace that comes only from dropping honest, tough inquiry and just accepting whatever one particular authority -- seemingly wise and good -- tells me. I have deliberately chosen not to walk that road, though it would have made my life far easier and happier. You'll need to decide for yourself whether I made the right choice.
The outstanding quality of most of the Bible, especially considering its era, speaks for itself. Yet in 44 years, no one has ever told me why I should believe that the Bible is free of human error and even all-too-human fabrication. I get told often enough that I'm wicked for not believing in inerrancy, but never why.
My task of finding the real Jesus is made difficult, of course, by the realities of his era. There was no "accountability in media". And Jesus's followers proved themselves willing to invent sayings for him. I'd begin with Mark 4:13 f (paralleled in Matthew 13:10 f and Luke 8:10 f), in which Jesus is quoted as saying that he speaks in parables to prevent people from understanding, repenting, and being saved. Since parables are obviously intended to illustrate and clarify, and since Jesus called all people to repentance and salvation, the existence of this passage satisfies me that the Second Gospel (in the form that was used by the First and Third Evangelists) is not the genuine memoirs of Simon Peter. Mark 10:11 condemns divorce, and Matthew 5:32 has obviously added "except for adultery". Luke 21:20 has altered Mark's "Little Apocalypse" (Mark 13:5 f) to make it refer to the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. If the story of the Great Commission ("Go and teach all nations") were actual history (rather than just true to the spirit of Jesus), there would not have been a controversy about accepting non-Jews as Christians. If Jesus and the Pharisees were really such fierce enemies as they are portrayed in the Gospel, it's hard to explain why Paul would cite his having been a Pharisee as a proof of having lived well prior to his conversion, and still considered himself a Pharisee in good standing (Acts 23:6, Acts 26:5, Philippians 3:5). Anyone who knows scripture well can supply many more examples. Later writers invented even more outlandish sayings; you can find these in the various apocryphal "gospels" beginning with pseudo-Thomas, who used the Third Gospel as well as more dubious material. (It's well-known that the word "repentance" does not occur in the Fourth Gospel -- I have less of a problem with this than others do, because the book's purpose was not to record the public preaching ministry but to encourage readers to believe in Christ.)
The early Christians also invented episodes in the lives of both Jesus and Paul. The contradictory birth stories in the First and Third Gospels are both obviously fiction. Both evangelists needed to get Jesus born in Bethlehem although everyone knew he came from Nazareth. The First Evangelist sees Jesus as the New Israel, taken into Egypt by a Joseph and re-enacting the legend of Moses's birth; if Herod had killed all the babies, we would have heard about it from some other ancient source, and if a star had really come to rest over a particular stable... but let's not be silly. Luke shows Christians as good citizens of the Roman Empire, and has Jesus's parents participate in the census of Quirinius that had been an occasion for a great deal of protest (a census was taboo for Jews), and which the secular chronologies tell us occurred a few years after Herod's death. It is preposterous to think that a couple would be required to travel 150 miles, the wife being near term, to be counted in a census. In addition to the two birth narratives, it is notoriously impossible to reconcile the five different accounts of the resurrection appearances, or the different accounts of Paul's journeys (compare Acts and Galatians).
Does all this make the actual Jesus unknowable? Again, my answer is a resounding "No!" I'll begin with the statements about Jesus from ancient times that could not be fabrications.
We have several biographical elements that could not possibly be fictitious.
The Carpenter-King must have existed. We know his name, and the names of his parents and four brothers, and that he had sisters (Mark 6:3 and parallels). There are patristic references to plows and furniture that Jesus made in his shop, and which people could still see. The name "Jesus", of course, is an alteration of the name of the early Israelite (we call him "Joshua") who led part of the conquest of Canaan. The suffix "-us" ("-ous" in Greek) used in the Christian scriptures turns the foreign root into a recognizably Greek man's name. (By analogy, friends say to me, "Hey, Ed-man, how ya' doin'?") Since there was an Old Testament prophecy about a messianic figure named "Emmanuel", a fictional messiah would likely have been given this name instead. The name has passed through Aramaic and Greek into English, with every phoneme changed. (Natural enough. "Yacob" exists in English as "James", with none of the original phonemes still present; "Yonah" of the whale exists as "John", and "Mariam", which exists as "Mary", has fared somewhat better. Jesus made up the nickname "Cephas" (i.e., "Rock" or "Rocky") for his disciple Simon, and this has come to us through Greek as "Peter" (compare "petrify"). One of the other disciples is nicknamed "Thaddeus" / "Lebbaeus", which I'm told means "pecs." These are some tough men. And so forth.)
He also preached. The Q-document, reconstructible from the passages common to Matthew and Luke, has the form of other collections of the sayings of famous rabbis. (I join many others in considering this the most reliable synoptic stratum, and likely to be the work of the real Matthew-Levi. It does not contain the word "Christ/Messiah".)
The historical Jesus definitely participated in a religious revival led by John the Baptist (immerser). John is a familiar type, a charismatic, ascetic preacher who calls others to renew their commitment to religion, sharing, and good living. We know from Josephus that people presented themselves to John for immersion because they were sorry for their past wrongdoings and intended to live better. No one among Jesus's followers would have invented a story that would make it seem that Jesus was sorry for his sins, unless Jesus had actually been immersed.
Jesus's movement spun off of John's, and this fact was well-known to the early community, inspiring contradictory accounts of the relationship between the two preachers.
Despite the messianic prophecies and the title "Son of David", which appears in the Gospels, Jesus was known to have grown up in Nazareth (not Bethlehem) and was almost certainly not a descendant of David, at least as far as anybody knew. There is even a story, which looks fictitious, explaining why the messiah isn't a descendant of David (Mark 12:35 and parallels).
Even the Third Evangelist, who goes to great efforts in "Luke" and "Acts" to show that Christians are not subversive, cannot deny that Jesus was crucified by the Romans (the Jews executed by stoning instead) as "King of the Jews". A seldom-cited passage (John 6:15 f.) indicates that Jesus could not control his admirers even during his natural life, and that he had to go into hiding to prevent them from "making him a king". Afterwards, his own brothers told him to leave the area because they were afraid of more trouble.
King of the Jews? What about that? The phrase appeared on Pilate's sign on top of the cross. Jesus lived in a milieu in which many expressions of religion were bound up with politics. Just look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, which present a picture (for me, horrifyingly familiar) of a militant faith-community gone nuts over anti-everything politics. According to Josephus, who is credible, John the Baptist was executed for criticizing the current Herod for marrying his brother's widow. Jesus's preaching emphasized the "kingdom of God". Since this expression does not appear much in the writings of his followers (even Paul), it must be Jesus's term. The early Church, like the "Dead Sea Scrolls" community and many other Jewish people of the era, believed in a coming supernatural event that would radically change the nature of the world, i.e., the eschatological expectation. Despite this, the "Jesus Seminar" begins with the assumption that Jesus was not an eschatological preacher, and that the "kingdom" is not-eschatological. Whatever Jesus, his followers, or his milieu may have believed about the future, Jesus's preaching about the "kingdom" seems to refer to something that is in some sense already at work in the world. The Greeks translate "basileia" (kingdom, reign); I think the translation "power" might work better. On the evidence, this was enough for the Romans to consider Jesus to be a political criminal; this explains the crown of thorns and the sign.
So was Jesus an anti-Roman political pretender? Clearly he was not. Gospel sayings about the Romans are conspicuous by their absence. And a political pretender does not emphasize personal repentance and forgiving enemies. Jesus's kingdom is not like the familiar governments of our world.
Historians disagree about exactly what the "kingdom" preaching meant. It seems most reasonable to me to see Jesus's public preaching as a call to Israel -- community and individuals -- to be the holy community of God, and that God was making this possible. Israel would be a light to the world, and non-Jews would be invited to be part of the kingdom, just as prophesied by Isaiah. Jesus announced the forgiveness of sins to all those who were contrite and intended to live better, without going through the "usual channels" of animal sacrifice in the temple.
Although Christians disagree on the questions of Jesus's "messianic consciousness" (i.e., how much he knew during his natural life), I find myself agreeing with secular scholars who conclude that Jesus regarded his own ministry as the sign of the coming of the kingdom. I also believe that he told his closest friends in private that he was the messiah, and that his self-sacrifice would defeat Satan and save the world. Along with Albert Schweitzer, I wonder whether Judas first betrayed Jesus by informing Caiaphas -- perhaps under harsh questioning -- about this claim. The Twelve who governed the community after Jesus's death may have been intended to represent the twelve tribes; the Seventy who were sent out as preachers may have been intended to represent the Sanhedrin.
Jesus was an intelligent man, and he knew that he was asking for trouble, up to being tortured to death, by going to Jerusalem and preaching in public. Why did he do it? It seems most reasonable to believe that he thought this course of action would advance the coming Kingdom of God. Why did he think this? A historian can't be sure. But whether or not we believe in the theology of the Cross, or Jesus's knowledge of the meaning of the Cross, even an unbeliever can easily conclude that Jesus deliberately went to his awful death for our sakes.
But if Jesus had preached much in public about his special person, his sacrifice on the cross, and the necessity of belief in him, we would not have the early community reporting his promise of salvation to Zacchaeus, who after listening to Jesus merely gave half his property to the needy and made good restitution to the people he had defrauded (Luke 19:8-9). And we would see much more of this kind of preaching in the first three gospels; instead, it is conspicuous by its absence (Matthew 20:28 and Matthew 26:28 are rare instances.) And the absence of these references cannot be the invention of the believing community.
We know from patristic sources that Jesus's brother Yacob (James) continued active in the Jewish community of his time, and was respected. Josephus tells us that Yacob, "the brother of Jesus, the so-called Messiah" was eventually killed. Eusebius tells us that decades after the fall of Jerusalem, some of Jesus's relatives were rounded up by the Romans as possible pretenders to the Davidic throne, but were simply dirt-poor farmers and were dismissed as harmless. We know from other accounts that Jesus's relatives continued to operate what had become a splinter group. None of this seems like invention. It's appealing, but unresolvable, to believe these were the good desert-dwelling Christians who for eighteen months hosted a young camel-driver named Mohammed.
There are also components of Jesus's teaching that could not possibly be fictitious.
Based on my reading, there are three ideas attributed to Jesus that are without any parallel in the rabbinical literature of his time. These are: "God sends the sun and rain for the good people and the bad people" (Matthew 5:45), "Love your enemies" (from the Q-document), and "Forgiving your own enemies is a requirement for being forgiven by God" (Matthew 6:14-15). (The theme that "your must hate your enemies" is hard to find in the Old Testament, but it is conspicuous in the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Could Jesus perhaps have been preaching primarily to an Essene audience?) I know our world well enough to have learned that most people (even pseudo-Christians) would much rather go on hating their supposed "enemies". These are not sayings that partisans would invent.
The story of the Good Samaritan was told to illustrate that we have obligations to be kind to others, even if they belong to the race that our identity group happens to hate. For some (if not most) of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries, it was considered sinful even to talk with a Samaritan. And life has taught me how people cherish their racial and ethnic animosities. It seems to me that the story of the Good Samaritan must be authentic, and would not have been invented. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the first time in Western Civilization that the obligation of kindness is extended to hated minority groups (not just "the sojourner in your midst"), and this fact alone makes Jesus among the great teachers of humankind.
At one point Jesus is called "good" and denies it, saying that only God is good (Mark 10:18). No one would have invented this saying.
Jesus was criticized during his life for drinking alcohol, and allowing his followers to do the same. Again, knowing "religious people" as I do, I can't imagine anybody making this fact up.
If Jesus had specifically endorsed the Old Testament dietary laws, his followers would have remembered this, and there would not have been a controversy in the early church. Instead, a saying survives that deserves to be remembered more often: "It's not what you eat with your mouth that makes you unclean, it's what you say with your mouth that makes you unclean" (Matthew15:11).
A person who believed Jesus's message and considered himself among his followers, but who was unknown to his larger group, proved to be a powerful exorcist, using Jesus's name. Questioned about this, Jesus told his disciples not to interfere. Today, many people are "private Christians", remaining uninvolved with organized religion. But it seems very unlikely that any member of the organized community would have invented Jesus's approving attitude toward non-members.
In a passage that deserves to be cited more often, Jesus is asked whether a group of people who were killed in the collapse of a building were more sinful than others (Luke 13:1 f). Jesus replied, "No". Given the well-known eagerness of members of organized religions to see misfortune as God's punishment for secret misbehavior, it seems that this saying, also, could not have been fabricated.
The early Christians were unusual among the religions of their day in giving women a major role in the church. Given the repression of women in the era, it seems most reasonable to think that Jesus set the example in extending equality (or near-equality, or whatever) to women.
A common theme here seems to be that there is no separation between a person's "religious duties" and "secular duties", i.e., being a Christian is about how you treat other people. I've been told, and read in several different sources, that while contemporary rabbis expressed the idea that being righteous was not really about keeping the legal obligations, they nevertheless thought they must still be observed. The story of the Good Samaratan makes more sense if you understand that the two "pious" people who passed by the injured man were afraid of becoming ritually unclean by touching a body that might be dead. It sounds so basic today, but in Jesus' milieu, the idea was radical.
The more problematic sayings of Jesus seem to be borrowed from his contemporaries. "Enter by the narrow gate" (Matthew 7:14, implying the vast majority of people are going to hell) is taken straight from 4 Ezra, a popular pseudepigraphal Jewish apocalypse. "Adultery in your heart... pluck out your eye" (Matthew 5: 28-9) are both from the contemporary rabbis; sayings about sexual guilt by Jesus are otherwise conspicuous by their absence.
The first three Evangelists are eager to see Jesus as messiah, fulfilling certain supposed Old Testament prophecies. Yet in these gospels, public sayings of Jesus about his messiahship, and sayings about people needing to believe in his person, are conspicuous by their absence. As before, I draw the obvious conclusion, i.e., that Jesus did not preach about himself as savior or messiah to the public.
Paul pays no attention to the reported miracles that Jesus performed during his life. Jesus was well-known as an exorcist, and people nowadays who are experienced with such things have told me that the name and authority of Jesus, spoken by one of his real followers, is sovereign against evil spirits. Other miracles are reported by the Evangelists to have been carried out in secret, with the command to tell no one. (Especially, "Mark is a book of secret epiphanies.") Various explanations have been given for this secrecy, and it seems reasonable to me to think that at least some of them are fiction.
I think that Jesus knew something about his special personality, and shared some mysteries with his followers on their last night together, but (unlike what's preceded) I cannot address this as a historian would. I would like to believe that Jesus went to his death for our world, and for me, even without the foreknowledge of a happy ending. I believe that he commanded us, on the last night, to love one another as he loves us (John 15:12). I believe this, not because I consider the Fourth Evangelist credible as a historian, but because of something that happened soon after. And this is the key.
Beginning a few days after Jesus's death, people (some believers, some not) began reporting having seen him alive. This has continued to the present time. The resurrection is obviously an extremely early claim. Nobody produced a dead body to counter the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Unless the body of Jesus was placed in a common grave, somebody would have tried, and tried hard. And it seems unlikely to me that people who had stolen a dead body (or could find out about such a theft) would face persecution and death knowing it to be a lie. Especially, Paul's staking everything on the fact of Christ's resurrection (I Cor. 15) does not read as it if were written by a man who is kidding himself.
By the way, as a pathologist, I get a big laugh out of the old claim ("The Passover Plot") that Jesus could not have died on the cross. Contrary to the "science" on which the claim is founded, a newly-dead body DOES bleed when the skin in pierced.
Reported meetings with Jesus have always been of two types.
In one situation, a believer reports a series of recurring visions in which messages are given that endorse the visionary's politics, which (to my knowledge) are always conservative. The volume of material is likely to be massive and very tiresome.These cases include Ellen White, Catherine of Siena, and Brigid of Sweden. I generally dismiss these, and join greater minds including Clement of Alexandria and Martin Luther in dismissing the "Revelation", the last book in the Bible, as at best a book in this general category.
In the other situation, a person who may or may not already be a believer is surprised by a meeting with Jesus. This may be a vision, a near-death experience, or (least often) meeting Jesus like another ordinary person in the ordinary world. The person comes away believing that Jesus loves each individual, and that he or she has been challenged to love others as Jesus does and to translate that love into action, and that this is what our lives are supposed to be all about. Lives change dramatically, and always for the better. The first person to whom this happened may very well have been Jesus's natural brother, James (the evidence is scanty but suggestive). The most famous is our first theologian, Paul of Tarsus, but his case is typical. The theology is generally heterodox (indeed, Paul had his differences with the other apostles), and is not always the same; Julian of Norwich saw the Trinity in Jesus, while Betty J. Eadie ("Embraced by the Light"), who was from a Trinitarian Christian background who embraced Mormonism, returned believing that Jesus was not God, but a special Person without Whom there is no finding God. Teresa of Avila wrote at length about distinguishing these phenomena from dream-stuff (authentic experiences have tremendous impact and create lifelong memories), mental illness (authentic experiences make sense), overactive imagination (authentic experiences are infrequent and surprising), and spiritual evil (authentic experiences bring peace, which the enemy cannot do; and the experiencer feels small, grateful, and safe.) I leave the reader the wonderful task of learning more about these reports.
In 1978, as an amateur parapsychologist, I did some informal experiments with a psychometrist whom I also knew personally. On one occasion, I gave him three symbols on cards, which he did not see. The first was the zodiac sign for Libra (♎), which he said was a bell. The second was the sigil of the "olympian sun spirit", which he called orange flames or orange clothes flapping on a clothesline. The third was the Chi-Rho ("PX, an X with an upright P through the center") monogram, one of the most ancient and universal symbols for Christ. Here's what he said as exactly as I could get it written down: "This is much better than the other two. This is somebody with long flowing brown hair who loves me very much. This is enormous love, I have never felt such love. This is at the beginning of everything, this is all about what it means to be human, this is the essence of humanity. It feels like a woman's love, since that is the most intense love I have ever known, but it's something more." I showed him the three symbols, and he didn't recognize any of them. He called the third, "P-X". "What's that?" I had a friendship with this man, who worked in my medical school, for three years, and I believe he was too simple-minded, with much too weak a store of general knowledge and too little guile, to have been able to perpetrate a hoax. I'd also been impressed with some other stunts; psychometrizing identification badges inside sealed envelopes, he nailed my chief resident (a small young woman with a doctoral degree with the bottom of her foot numb; unknown to me, she had suffered a sural nerve injury years ago) and another doctor who had suicided (he could not hold the badge, but kept tossing it from one hand to the other, saying that something was horribly wrong and it was hurting him.) All this really happened.
What about the Cross as our salvation?
On the night on which he was arrested, Jesus reportedly explained some things about his person and his special relationship with God (this being reported by John, who elsewhere seems to be writing historical fiction). Also at this time (as reported by Paul, who is very credible), Jesus broke bread and shared wine, and asked his followers to share a common meal of bread and wine, which were in some sense his body and blood. This recalls other actions by prophets (true and false; see I Kings 22:11) of the Old Testament.
Paul, and other early Christians, emphasized that Jesus's blood, shed on the cross, actually was the sacrifice by which forgiveness was obtained. Sometimes we hear that this works when believers accept it. Other times, we hear that it's already accomplished for the whole world. (Could these be the same?) Because of Christ's sacrifice for us, Christians do not need to shed the blood of an animal, or accept punishment for ourselves, when we are sorry for the wrongs we've done. (All Christians seem to agree about this.) And whatever different people think about ancient and/or supernaturalist ideas about blood-sacrifice, I've seen enough (including the effect on those who, even as an experiment, consciously decide to accept the power of the blood) to make me believe in the blood of Christ. A historian can study the impact, but each person will need to decide about the underlying reality. I believe it.
On the evidence, here is what Jesus has taught us.
The supernatural power of God is at work in the world, and manifested in Jesus's own life and ministry and the lives and ministries of his followers. God loves you, and seeks a personal relationship with you. The finest thing you can do in your life is to accept Jesus as your savior and to follow him. And this is not just something you do for yourself -- it will give you a special role in serving the material and spiritual needs of those around you.
We need to be good to others without regard to race, religion, or even virtue.
We are expected to share, and to reach out with kindness where we can.
Every human being who has done wrong can repent and live better, and do what's possible to repair the harm he/she has already done to others.
We are required to forgive those who have wronged us.
When we've done well, we shouldn't pay much attention to the fact.
Organized church participation, though not required, should be part of a Christian's life.
And (for some people, best of all) we can ignore, and can even laugh at, all the claims of organized religion and other social proscriptors that seem unreasonable. At least while we're on earth, we are not required to believe any theological doctrine as a condition of salvation. We can ignore all the petty legalisms of organized religion, such as abstinence from alcohol and cards and movies, and of the ethical systems that prescribe behavior in terms of dyadic relationships. So long as we're living decently, no one (not even the Church) can make our life-decisions for us.
Our first theologian, Paul, dealt extensively with the problem of making rules for church members, and kept Jesus's movement on-course by emphasizing "We can't make rules." Christians discover their roles by the leading of the Holy Spirit, and behavior is defined in terms of the ethic of love, forgiveness, and repentance. It's typically Christian that it was the unconverted Paul who had made our first martyr.
Our daily lives, in every aspect, need to be guided by the golden rule rather than impossible repression. We have no reason to think that unbaptized children or decent adults will go to hell, even if they have never actually heard of Jesus. We are not expected to believe in any infallible book or denomination as a guide to science or living.
Now, it seems to me that most of this is what most of the world, "Christian" and "non-Christian", "religious" and "secular", believes nowadays. And it seems to me that the world is very much better for it. And it seems to me that we owe this, at least in large part, to Jesus of Nazareth.
Even as the world's great ethical teacher, Jesus is the pivotal figure in our history. And that makes it all the easier for me to believe that He is more significant even than this.
There are three things that people really want, once our needs for air, water, food, shelter, and relief of pain are met. These three needs are (1) to be loved, (2) to find meaning, and (3) to find an answer for death.
Jesus has given me each of these.
"Christ is risen!" is not the most curious thing that I've heard, but it's the most credible of the unprovable claims, and it's also the most encouraging. I believe it, and I'll act accordingly.
I'll follow Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord. And I will do what I can to share what I've discovered with others.
Happy birthday, Jesus. And thank you.