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 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.
“Blessed are you who are poor” did not seem like a rational view of life, yet it was foundational to Jesus’ worldview. Income inequality was extreme, to say the least, in the Roman Empire, and most of Jesus’ audience would have been poor. So he tells them that they don’t have to do anything to gain God’s favor and a place in the Empire of God. The poor are blessed because they belong to the Empire of God. This is the same Jesus who later preached, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). His consistent message is that money is an impediment to being in right relationship with God, or righteous.
Jesus’ message was a challenge to the rich, and many heeded his call to divest and sacrificed their wealth so that other members (the poor) of the Empire of God could have enough to eat (the second beatitude is “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled”). Most commentators assume that the sadness of the rich young ruler was because he was going to miss out on the Empire of God because he refused to sell all he had (Luke 18:18-24). But I believe his sadness was not because he was going to miss out on the Empire of God, but because he was going to miss his wealth. I believe he did sell all he had, and that was hard to do. It’s not supposed to be easy for the rich to get into the Empire. They have everything else easy. This message is for the poor. They are blessed because it is easy for them to enter the Empire of God.
Jesus’ teachings conferred this remarkable status of citizen of the Empire of God on the marginalized in the Roman Empire for whom citizenship was an impossible goal. His countercultural teaching welcomed those who had been excluded from polite society and mainstream life. Sickness, mental illness (read “demon possession”), gender, slavery, poverty or many other disqualifying qualities were exactly what Jesus “redeemed” in those who followed him. Jesus was the “way, and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) for those who had no life in the conventional worlds of politics and religion. His alternative Empire gave life to those who were being crushed by the Roman Empire and its vassals governing Judea and Galilee.
The Death of Jesus
His death was historically inconsequential—a crucified Jew in Jerusalem among many hundreds who were crucified during the riotous atmosphere that often surrounded the Passover observance. Passover, a celebration of Jewish freedom, was always an anxious time under Rome’s oppressive occupation. The elaborate accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish authorities were shaped by an early Christian community that wanted to distance itself from a Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. that had provoked the wrath of Rome. Thus, the infamous cry to “crucify him” is put on the lips of the Jewish crowd, while the Roman governor of the province washes his hands of the whole matter. Given that Jesus lived before the Jewish-Roman Wars but the writing of the gospels exactly overlaps the wars, it is not surprising that they would manufacture the false statements that Jesus’ own people, and presumably his own followers demanded his death over the objection of the Roman rulers.
But if we look at the death in a pre-war context, Jesus’ preaching of an alternative empire would provide ample grounds for charges of treason, which was grounds for the death penalty and specifically death by crucifixion. We then can assume that the Romans needed no encouragement to “lift him up” on the cross. It makes sense. He was posturing as the one leading the “way” to this new empire that was breaking into the midst of the Roman Empire. As unarmed and nonthreatening as Jesus’ ragtag movement must have appeared, Rome was not in the business of accommodating any competition. Crucifixion was its easy and available answer.
With his death, however, his message, his meaning and his mission were now left to others to remember, interpret and continue. It all would have been so simple if Jesus had just written his sermons down. The most likely explanation about why he didn’t write his own Gospel is that Jesus probably was illiterate. But Jesus’ story proved quite malleable in the hands of the skilled editors who would later tell his story. Initially, a wide variety of remembrances, interpretations and continuations emerged from among those who had lived with the historical Jesus. The first to put pen to paper was Paul of Tarsus (later known as the Apostle Paul). Writing in the early 50s, his mode of communication was the letter. His letters were generally written to congregations that followed Jesus that Paul had established in Asia Minor. These letters were instructional to his primarily gentile congregations on how being baptized into this new faith/cult should impact the way they lived. Sprinkled with Paul’s original theology, his letters were as often pedantic (whether Christians should eat meat or be vegetarian) as they were esoteric.
Next, a group of writings emerged in the latter decades of the first century of the Common Era (a calendar era often used as an alternative name of the anno Domini era). They had a narrative framework that presented the story of Jesus in the “gospel” format. Gospels were familiar in the Roman culture. Gospels were written about many great men, including major political and military leaders. This group of Christian writings, generally known as the canonical Gospels, soon distilled into an authoritative corpus that the early church came to use exclusively.
By the third century A.D., only the four canonical Gospels were used in teaching and preaching in any broad way. The other gospels were deemed heretical, and many were lost to history. Letters from other early Christian leaders and others written in the name of early Christian leaders circulated and were ultimately extracted into an orthodox collection that has been held as the “real” Christian writings. At the time of the writing of these “heretical” documents, however, those who read them regarded them as legitimate expressions of what it meant to be Christian in that moment.
Though the documents that became the four Gospels bear apostolic names (Matthew and John) and two alleged companions (Mark was supposed to be a companion of Peter, and someone named Luke is portrayed as a companion of Paul in the second volume of the work written by Luke), they are each anonymous. These labels were added in the second century in order to add authority to the writings.
As literary competition proliferated, the early church began to list (canonize) certain documents as useful. All others were to become heretical. It wasn’t until the fourth century that the Christian “canon” was closed. During the pre-canonical stage, many writings, many writers and many Christian communities viewed themselves as authentically representing the words, ministry and mission of Jesus. The only way they could do this was if Jesus was still alive. So, they resurrected him.
The idea of resurrection was necessary if the movement gathered around the historical Jesus was to keep moving. Paul is the only “apostle” from whom we have an authentic written product. He, however, by his own admission, was a lesser apostle because he never knew the historical Jesus but was commissioned as an apostle (one untimely born) by the “risen” Jesus. Technically, Paul’s letters are the first to speak of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of his letters in which he addresses resurrection, it is evidence of God’s vindication of the mission and message of Jesus: that Jesus’ way of life had conquered death.
All of the Gospels in their final form and Paul refer to Jesus as much, much more than a Jewish sage, wisdom prophet and sometime healer and exorcist, however. But this “more” reveals the fluid treatment that the historical Jesus received at the hands of his biographers. It seems that they mapped his footsteps rather than followed them. Each created the Jesus they needed him to be for their constituencies. Matthew mapped a very Jewish Jesus for his Jewish Christian community. Mark mapped a martyr Jesus to encourage his besieged community facing the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish war with Rome. Luke mapped a Holy Spirit that inhabited Jesus to do the work of God and inhabited his church to be the embodiment of the divine presence. And John mapped a cosmic Jesus from the beginning of time to the end of eternity. All of this is evidence that the decades separating these writings from the life of Jesus were filled with theological imagination. It wasn’t until the creedal formulations and the authority of the Christian Emperor Constantine that orthodoxy quashed alternative interpretations of Jesus, and the Christian church would emerge as an international operation of culture and power with Jesus (the) Christ as its imperial head and the bishop of Rome as his vicar.
So Who Is Jesus Today?
Liberation theology is a branch of Christian theology that understands God to be primarily at work in the world for the liberation of the oppressed. It draws from the foundational story of the Israelite Exodus (Exodus 3:16), the Israelite prophetic tradition and the teachings and preaching of Jesus. Liberation theologians see a clear and consistent “preferential option for the poor.” So whether they are peasants in Latin America, or black people in the United States or women or gay and lesbian people, liberation theology identifies Jesus with the interpretation of the marginalized in each of these theologies.
For black liberation theology, Jesus is poor and black. James Cone’s famous declaration in 1968, “Jesus is black,” caused no little controversy in religious circles. The claim by black theology that “Jesus is black” (note the present tense) had a converse claim with both theological and ethnic implications: “Jesus was not white” (note the past tense). Its claim was that the Eurocentric world produced by an imperialistic Christianity was as much a distortion of the Jesus movement as the popular artists’ renderings of a white-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus were to a Palestinian peasant who lived at the nexus of the African and Asian continents. The assertion that Jesus was not white sent a shudder through mainstream Christianity. Suddenly, Christianity was forced to confront its own racism and examine its traditional religion that had baptized Western culture and condemned developing nations to poverty and colonial subservience.
The claim that Jesus is black, or gay, or a woman or a peasant is not an assertion about Jesus’ identity. It is more about what each of these theologies understands as the central focus of Jesus’ ministry today. A popular phrasing of this approach simply asks, “What would Jesus do?” It’s less about Jesus’ identity and more about with whom Jesus would identify. Seekers usually find that identification outside the four walls of the church.
Conversely, traditional mainline churches continue to hold themselves out as the embodiment of the continuing presence of Jesus—whether the Roman pontiff as the vicar of Christ, or the Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist claims of apostolic succession for their bishops or the Protestant focus on the local gathering of Christians in the church (derived from the Greek ekklesia) as the “body of Christ.”
So, is there a meaningful way to speak of Jesus Christ? There probably is not. To speak of Jesus is to continue the “quest,” to continue to draw out implications for who this man was. To speak of (the) Christ is to assert a faith that can be defined, in historical fashion, according to the needs of one’s own constituency. Traditional Christians will continue to live quietly in their personalized religion with their forgiving Christ who absolves them of sin, promises them heaven when they die and motivates them to pious behavior until that day. Liberal Christians will continue to ignore the more miraculous elements of the Bible and of Jesus’ story but maintain their embrace of the Israelite prophetic tradition and the social justice implications of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. The real battle will be between the fundamentalist Christians on the right and the progressive Christians on the left.
Fundamentalism has a voracious evangelical appetite. It is not enough that its adherents be convinced that they are correct. They must convince the world to believe the same as they do. Not only must they convince the world, they must transform the world, and those who oppose their transformation are no less than evil incarnate, because they are opposing the true will of God as it has been revealed to them. Traditional, liberal and even progressive Christianities don’t even have an oar in the water when it comes to resisting the overwhelming current that is fundamentalism. This is true in Islam as well as in Christianity.
Progressive Christianity is beginning to fight back. The Westar Institute (sponsors of the Jesus Seminar), The Center for Progressive Christianity and dozens of regional “progressive” Christian movements are starting to speak loudly (using the media) and forcefully against what they see are the dangerous distortions of the meaning and message of Jesus by fundamentalists. Progressive Christianity, grounded in an intellectually rigorous study of the historical Jesus, committed to a vision of social, economic and political democracy, radically open to all varieties of religious expression (more than one path up the mountain to God) and understanding the need to build strong communities of faith is beginning to make its mark in many parts of the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Australia in particular.
The truth about Jesus will continue to be the fulcrum that each side seeks to leverage against the other. This investigation, known as a “dig” in Truthdig parlance, will continue to monitor and map that struggle as this new dispensation of the “religion wars” comes into full view.
Suggested Reading List
“The New Oxford Annotated Bible With Apocrypha” (New Revised Standard Version), edited by Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy
“Once and Future Faith,” Karen Armstrong (Editor), Don Cupitt, Arthur J. Dewey, Robert W. Funk, Lloyd Geering, Roy W. Hoover, Robert J. Miller, Stephen J. Patterson, Bernard Brandon Scott, John Shelby Spong
“The Historical Jesus Goes to Church,” Roy Hoover, et al.
“Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith,” Marcus Borg
“Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally,” Marcus Borg
“Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile” John Shelby Spong
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