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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....
The Truth About Jesus
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 his surname.
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 and was certainly raised in Nazareth in the province of Galilee—not in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem story was added to the Gospel accounts (note that Paul never speaks of a miraculous birth of Jesus) to match the royal lineage and miraculous births of other “great men” of Greco-Roman culture. (Alexander the Great, for instance, was said to have been conceived by a god in the form of a serpent.)
Jesus was a Jewish wisdom teacher and exorcist/healer who lived in the Galilee province of the Roman Empire between 4 B.C. and 30 A.D. 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, but rather the “son of [hu]Man[ity],” or an “average Joe” with no place to lay his head.
The truth about “Christ” is that it is not Jesus’ last name. It is a faith claim made by some followers of this Jesus who eventually gathered themselves into congregations of the Christ and ultimately into the Christian church. “Christ” is, in fact, a title of leadership given to Israelite kings and priests. The word “Christ” is actually not an English translation but an English transliteration of the Greek word christos. The Greek christos is a translation of the Hebrew word messiah, meaning “anointed one.” This title of leadership was given to Israelite kings and priests because they were doused or anointed with oil as a sign of their office. So when those first followers called Jesus their “Christ,” they were saying that to them, Jesus was the one anointed by God to lead them in the way of life. The true English translation should always read, “Jesus the Anointed (One).”
So who is Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ is a mashup of the Jesus of history and the faith claim of the Christian church. It is an attempt to take the metaphor of Christ, meaning “savior,” and invest it totally in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a distortion of this historical figure, because it makes a very Jewish Jesus into the first Christian. The truth about Jesus Christ is that, when we look only at this hybrid concept, we lose clear sight of the man as a man and the myth as a meaningful faith claim. What we hope to do is excavate separately the man (Jesus) and the myth (Christ) and outline the ramifications of what it means to make the statement “Jesus [is the] Christ/the Anointed (One).”
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 their own admission “…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 (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 nonecclesiastical 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 only became a physician 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 and persists to this day. 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 constitutes the basic tools of those excavating Jesus from under the layers of faith, fantasy and fact that have covered him over the years. These ministers in many pulpits have carried on the traditional faith in spite of their new perspective, producing a phenomenon Jack Good chronicled in his book, “The Dishonest Church.”
Therefore, while much of this truth has been known in the academy, it has only trickled into the pews of the churches. The scholars and scholarly product of the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute represent the main manifestation of this current quest. 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 Gospel of Thomas as having equal historical value to the traditional ones of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but in an ironic 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 these words. Black is for words strictly the product of the early church, with no connection to the historical Jesus. Grey is for words likely the product of the early church but consistent with the core message of Jesus. Pink is for words consistent with the core message of Jesus but as likely to be the product of his earliest followers. Red is for the 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 percent of the words attributed to Jesus are given a red or pink rating.
Underlying the entire project is the hypothesis that there was a written document containing the central ideas of Jesus’ teaching—a source for both Matthew and Mark—as they began their work of writing a biography and Gospel about Jesus. This source has never been found as an independent document, but by carving out the common sayings and ideas in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Thomas that are not contained in Mark (their other common precursor), they identified this “document” and called it “Q.” They called this document “Q” because that is the first letter of the German word “quelle,” which means “source.” The scholars further assert that this document, “Q,” 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 other Gospels. The idea of a document of mere sayings (without narrative connections) was scoffed at until the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is exactly that, a list of sayings with no narrative context. Having excavated the words of the historical Jesus from the layers of text added by primitive Christianity, a very different image of this man emerges.
To complete the picture of Jesus, the seminar needed to know more than what he said. It also needed some idea of what he actually did (walk on water? Heal the sick?). After the production of “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?,” the next phase of the quest was to identify, by a kind of historical-literary triangulation, what this man Jesus actually did. Taking on the one hand 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 his mission. The seminar’s next major publication was “The Acts of Jesus: What Jesus Really Did.”
Thus emerges a new picture of the historical Jesus. The seminar conjectures that originally Jesus was received and perceived as a Jewish sage, a prophet with a message of unconventional wisdom who did some healings and exorcisms on the side. He preached about an alternative to the brutal Roman Empire. This alternative he called the “Empire of God.” Citizenship, or belonging, in this Empire of God was available to anyone who lived according to the unconventional wisdom that was his main stock in trade.
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