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The Rev. Madison Shockley is a minister of the United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. and a regular commentator on religion, race, politics and popular culture....
Jesus: The Man, the Myth
A Dig led by The Rev. Madison Shockley
What is the truth about Jesus? What is the truth about the Christ? Are they the same truth? Are they the same person? Most people (religious and nonreligious) think of one person to whom they commonly refer as Jesus Christ as though Christ were this person’s surname. Christ is not Jesus’ last name but instead is an honorific title. It comes from the Greek word christos. The Greek christos is a translation of the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed one. This was the title of leadership given to Israelite kings and priests because they were doused or anointed with oil as a sign of their office. As it pertains to Jesus, he was called Christ as an expression of faith that he had been anointed by God as king and priest. The followers of this Jesus eventually gathered themselves into congregations of the Christ and ultimately into the Christian Church.
The truth about Jesus is that he was a human being who lived and died as every person born ever has. Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth of the Galilee and certainly was raised there. He was a Jewish wisdom teacher and exorcist/healer who lived in the Galilee province of the Roman Empire between 4 BCE (before the Common Era) and 30 CE. His mother was known as Mary. His father was likely Joseph.
The truth about Jesus is that he never intended to start a church or a new religion. He did not understand himself to be the divine Son of God; rather, he saw himself as the “Son of [hu]Man[ity]” or an “average Joe.” Not only did he not start a church, he joined the reform movement of John the Baptizer (aka John the Baptist), who was a popular and charismatic Jewish prophet.
So who is Jesus Christ? The Jesus Christ of most traditional theology is a distortion of both the Jesus of history and the Christ of the Christian faith—an attempt to take the metaphor of Christ and invest it totally in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a distortion because it makes a very Jewish Jesus into the first Christian and not the faithful Jew that he was. The truth about “Jesus Christ” is that when we look only at this hybrid concept we lose clear sight of both the human being and the mythological icon. What we hope to do in this dig is excavate separately the man (Jesus) and the myth (Christ) and unearth a new meaning for the statement “Jesus [is] Christ.”
Evidence and Methodology
The first problem in disentangling the man from the myth is that we have no direct contemporary historical evidence of Jesus’ existence, let alone enough information to give us a true image of the man we seek. We only have faith documents, written decades after Jesus’ death, which by the admission of one “... are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Gospel of John 20:31). The pursuit of this “de-mythologized” Jesus is known in academic circles as the “quest for the historical Jesus.”
The quest for the historical Jesus was born out of Enlightenment sensibilities and freedoms that liberated the Bible from the Church and made it available to nonreligious bodies for interpretation and study. Scientific inquiry knew no limits, and quickly the miraculous and mythical elements of the Christian texts came under strict scrutiny. This was not done lightly. One of the early “questers” published his work posthumously lest he come to an untimely demise. None other than Sir Albert Schweitzer conducted the most famous quest. We generally know him as the kindly physician, environmentalist and animal activist who lived out his life treating Africans deep in the jungle. But he became a physician only after a career as a professor of theology. His book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus” (1906) proclaimed that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish mystic who preached the imminent end of the world. Schweitzer says of Jesus, “When this did not happen, and the great wheel of history refused to turn, he threw himself upon it, [and] was crushed in the process….” Thus ended Schweitzer’s theological career.
The current quest began in the 1970s. The ethos of the early “questers” has now permeated most mainstream seminary curricula. Several generations of ministers have been trained in the historical-critical method that interprets the Christian texts from a literary and historical perspective and ignores the doctrines of the Church. This methodology constitutes the basic tools for those excavating Jesus from under the layers of faith, fantasy and fact that have covered him over the years. These historically trained ministers have carried on the traditional faith in their pulpits despite their new perspective, producing a phenomenon that Jack Good describes in his book “The Dishonest Church.” In academic gatherings they pursue the truth with passion, but in the local church they teach Sunday school lessons from generations past.
Therefore while much of this truth has been known in the academy, it has only trickled into the pews of the churches. The scholarship of the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute, a gathering of more than 200 professionally trained specialists, is at the forefront of this current quest for the historical Jesus. Their central contribution has been the publication of The Five Gospels.” Not only does this work expand the Gospel canon from four to five (they hold the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as having equal historical value to the traditional Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but in a twist on previous “red-letter” editions of the New Testament, in which all the words attributed to Jesus are colored red, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar apply four different shadings to the words attributed to Jesus. Black for words strictly the product of the early church with no connection to the historical Jesus. Gray for words likely the product of the early church but consistent with the core message of Jesus. Pink for words consistent with the core message of Jesus but as likely to be the product of his earliest followers. Red for words that are consistent with the core message of Jesus and likely to have been spoken by him in similar form. Their conclusion: Only 20% of the words traditionally attributed to Jesus deserve a red or pink rating.
A major presupposition of the project was that Matthew and Luke used a common written document as a source of their sayings of Jesus. Such a document has never been found, but by isolating the ideas and sayings of Jesus that did not appear in Mark, the Jesus Seminar identified a body of sayings it called “Q” (the first letter of the German word quelle, which means source). The scholars believe this document was the earliest written account of Jesus’ teaching and is therefore more relevant to understanding who the historical Jesus really was than any of the canonical Gospels.
Once the historical words of Jesus are separated from the speculative rhetoric of the early Christian church, a very different image of this man emerges. The next phase of the quest was to identify, by a kind of historical-literary triangulation, what this man Jesus actually did. Taking first what Jesus said and mapping the progression of what others said about him, the Jesus Seminar proceeded to develop an outline of his ministry and then his mission. By tracking the response to and interpretation of the words and works of Jesus by these writers they were able to discover how the image of Jesus grew. These findings are contained in another book from the Jesus Seminar, “The Acts of Jesus.”
They conjecture that originally Jesus was received and perceived as a Jewish sage, a wisdom teacher with a message of unconventional wisdom who did some healings and exorcisms on the side. He preached a vision of the “Empire of God,” which was an alternative to the brutal Roman Empire, and available to anyone who followed the precepts of his unconventional wisdom. “Blessed are the poor” was certainly not a rational view of the world in which Jesus lived, yet it was the very foundation of his philosophy and theology.
Continued: The Death of Jesus
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