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
The Death of Jesus
The death of the man from Nazareth was historically inconsequential—a crucified Jew in Jerusalem among so many hundreds 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 historical fact is that Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire. The charge was political sedition, considered a capital crime. For being known as the “King of the Jews” he was crucified by Rome because assuming such a title challenged the sovereignty of the Caesar. The trial scenes recorded in the Gospels were a fiction devised by the early Christian writers to put blame for Jesus’ death on Jewish leadership and deflect responsibility from Roman officials. They did this so that the new religion could survive in a hostile Roman Empire. Not only do they deny any Roman responsibility for the crucifixion, the Gospel of Matthew has a Roman centurion confess, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).
Was the resurrection a historical event? No. It is a thoroughly theological concept. We learn a lot from the resurrection literature of the early Christian writers. Most of the resurrection stories find the disciples either hiding in fearful seclusion or having returned to their former lives (mostly as fishermen). So why was resurrection necessary?
With his death, 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 as to why Jesus didn’t write his own Gospel is that Jesus was probably illiterate. Early Christian communities viewed themselves as authentically representing the words, ministry and mission of Jesus. The only way they could do this was if Jesus were still alive. So, they resurrected him.
But Jesus’ story proved quite malleable in the hands of the skilled editors who would later tell his story. Initially, a wide variety of such remembrances, interpretations and extrapolations emerged from the early Christian communities that had known the historical Jesus. This group—its members generally were known as “the disciples”—was soon distilled into an authoritative clique that the early church came to revere as “the Apostles.” Paul is the only apostle from whom we have authentic written product. However, he, by his own admission, was a lesser apostle because he never knew the historical Jesus but rather was commissioned as an apostle (“as one untimely born”) by the “risen” Jesus.
Though the documents that ultimately became the four Gospels bear the names of two apostles (Matthew and John) and two alleged companions (Mark, supposedly a friend of Peter, and someone named Luke, supposedly a friend of Paul—though the only evidence for this is “Luke” himself), they are all anonymous. These characterizations were added in the Second Century in order to add authority to the Gospels. As literary production proliferated, the early church began to list (canonize) certain documents as useful and all others were deemed heretical. It wasn’t until the Fourth Century that the Christian “canon” was closed.
However, all of the Gospels (in their final form) and Paul refer to Jesus as far more than a Jewish sage, wisdom prophet and sometime healer and exorcist. But it is exactly this “more” that 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 he needed for his constituency. 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. 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 authority of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, combined with a nascent church bureaucracy that alternative interpretations of Jesus were quashed. Only then would the Christian Church (big C) 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. Drawing from the 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” (a phrase borrowed from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops’ campaign for human development). Liberation theology identifies Jesus with the marginalized in every society, whether they be peasants in Latin America, African Americans in the United States or gays and lesbians everywhere. So, for black liberation theology Jesus is poor and black. When James Cone declared in 1969 that “Jesus is black” he caused no little controversy in religious circles. The claim by black theology that “Jesus is black” (note the present tense) had both theological and racial implications. First it meant that Jesus was not white. Jesus could not be white because whites were the embodiment of black oppression in America. Theologically, the claim meant that the Eurocentric faith produced by imperialistic Christianity was a gross distortion of the original Jesus movement. This distorted theology produced icons and images of a white-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus totally unreflective of the Palestinian peasant named Jesus, who lived at the nexus of the African and Asian continents. The assertion that Jesus was not white sent a shudder through a mainstream Christianity that was suddenly forced to confront its own racism and examine its version of Christianity, which was little more than a baptized Western culture. This same Christianity has not hesitated to traffic in slavery or condemn the Third World to colonial subservience.
The claim that Jesus is black, or gay, or a woman, or a peasant, is not an assertion about Jesus’ personal identity. It is more a way of making demonstrably clear what the central focus of Jesus’ ministry would be today. A popular phrasing of this approach simply asks, “What would Jesus do?” Liberation theology sees Jesus engaged in a ministry outside the four walls of the church and less engaged in a priestly ministry of liturgy and incense.
Conversely, the 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.”
The “Jesus movement” (i.e. those who followed Jesus prior to a formal church evolving) was left leaderless and without direction. The anticipation of Jesus’ death in the Gospels benefited from their hindsight of knowing how the story ended. But for the original disciples Jesus’ death was probably a sudden and unexpected occurrence.
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 themselves that they are correct; they must convince the world to believe the same way as they do. Not only must they convince the world, they must transform the world, and those that oppose their transformation are no less than evil incarnate because they are opposing the true will of God (as it has been revealed to fundamentalists). Traditional, liberal and even progressive elements in the religion 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 (sponsor of the Jesus Seminar), the Center for Progressive Christianity and dozens of regional “progressive” Christian movements are starting to speak loudly and forcefully, from the pulpit and in the media, against what they see as dangerous distortions of the meaning and message of Jesus by the 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 UK and Australia in particular.
The truth about Jesus will continue to be the fulcrum that each side seeks to leverage against the other. This dig will continue to monitor and map that struggle as this new dispensation of the “religion wars” comes into full view.