After reading British historian Michael Grant’s (still available) strong yet concise introductory 1977 treatise on Jesus, it oddly occurred to me that I have not written anything at length about Him. Grant quite rightly describes Jesus as the most influential person who ever lived, so perhaps every Christian (and Messianic Jew) should at least attempt to write down something on His behalf, in terms of how and why He matters to those of us who readily accept His importance. Grant’s book is one of a half-dozen or so scholarly books I have read about Jesus, and all of them are differently useful, with their constant caution that we know far too little about Him beyond the Gospels, and yet the swelling popularity of the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries throughout the Roman Empire and beyond can not be denied. Also oddly, no one really talks about what Jesus has been doing in Heaven for nearly two thousand years, other than the Catholic formulary that He “sits on the right hand of the Father,” found in the Apostles’ Creed. Who was and is Jesus, really, if we try to hold Him in our hands as someone to ponder and receive His inspiration, someone urging us out into the world to better serve the poor, and someone who endured terrorable agony on the Cross in the quasi-voluntary posture of Isaiah’s Old Testament “suffering servant” of God? How do we limit our tendency to project our needs and ideas onto Jesus to fill in the holes of our admitted ignorance about Him, knowing that anything we conjure or accept will necessarily and frustratingly be, at most, only half-right?
Jesus’ life began, for us but not for Him, with too much opaque history. Was he born, as tradition claims, in Bethlehem, or in Nazareth, as Grant and some other scholars speculate? While it was and is a four-day walk between the two towns, there was also Joseph’s obedience to the Roman census decree. Was He born of the still-virginal Mary, as (only) told in Luke’s Gospel, and as a descendent of the Davidic line, as told in genealogical fashion (only) in Matthew’s Gospel? Was Joseph Jesus’ biological or step-father? How many siblings did He have, since the Catholic notion that Jesus was an only child is clearly not accurate? Despite much research and speculation, we still do not know, and likely will never know. As with God, there are (too) many unknowables. The story of Jesus in the Temple preaching at age twelve may or may not be historically accurate, though it takes on added import because there is so little history to work with. Then there is what I call “the long apprenticeship” for some twelve years before Jesus began His ministry around age thirty. Scholars describe Him working as a tekton, a labourer of some sort, perhaps in nearby Sepphoris, after learning one or more trades from Joseph. I am inclined to think that Jesus knew how to read (which one scholar doubts), whether gifted this by God or by schooling probably does not matter. He presumably studied the Old Testament (the Tanakh) for years, perhaps consulting rabbis as needed. I do not think there was any sense of even quasi-divinity during this period: no healings or miracles. While God talks to Moses almost constantly in the book of Deuteronomy, He does not do so at all regularly in the Gospels with Jesus, so their “conversations” during and after this apprenticeship must have taken on a different sort of style, with mutual understanding to a greater extent. Perhaps Jesus evolved during this apprenticeship as to His eventual mission, if not necessarily its awful outcome. It seems nearly unbelievable that there was no “getting ready” in some fashion during this long period, yet no one ever even speculates about this period, except that Jesus “grew in stature and knowledge.” Did He keep working during this time, or did His bond with God come to supersede any time for employment, since Jesus had no family to raise? As I do not buy the whole “marriage with kids to Mary Magdalene” hypothesis, the real question is how Jesus spent His free time for twelve years—-was He then truly sin-less and what out of this period sustained Him later on with His disciples in dealing with the Jewish religious hierarchy and eventually the Romans?
With this paucity of clarified historical material about Jesus even before His ministry got underway, from the beginning both the Gospel authors and later on the Church attempted to fill in the holes in His story, either through embellishment or dogma. Everyone says and knows this, and yet such conjuring has never ceased and continues to provoke strenuous disagreements, among both scholars and church denominations, to this day. What we do not know and probably will never know with any certainty fuels this speculative industry, thus changing the meaning of Gospel from “good news” to “hard and certain truths.” I am not inclined to accept that Jesus was forever sin-less, at least not prior to the start of His ministry, since I also do not accept the Trinitarian notion that He is co-equal with God, and therefore perfect. Whatever sins He may have committed, they were milder than my own—-that much I do accept. We must acknowledge both our historical ignorance of Jesus’ life as well as our very human tendency to fill in its gaps with too much speculation and doctrine as our starting place with Him. There will be no sufficiently reliable evidence or witnesses, no audio or videotape, to persuade nearly anyone of His teachings, His miracles, His crucifixion or resurrection. Atheists love to dwell on this as their principal belief that Jesus either never existed or was no son of God. We all wish it was so simple, but He shines too brightly to be that opaque.
Last year, after too many years, I re-read the four Gospels, from a new American translation by Notre Dame’s David Benton Hart. Often scholars and sometimes the clergy remind us that each Gospel author was writing to a particular audience in Palestine, but the clergy rarely tells us about the vicissitudes of fact verses embellishment or even fabrication in these works. Two of the four Gospel authors could not have been eyewitnesses, taking stories from Peter and less-so Paul to portray Jesus from description rather than personal experiences. There is also the never-seen “Q” material, upon which the Synoptic Gospels drew as well. Compared to the Old Testament, this story-telling better straddles the fence between the possible and the actual, such that only sometimes was I incredulously saying “Is this really true?” I was more struck by the amount of plagiaristic (yes!) repetition in both Matthew and Luke, heavily drawing from Mark’s earliest Gospel. Aside from Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s birth narrative, Matthew gets less derivative the longer he goes, while Luke gets less interesting later on. I would argue that Matthew and Luke could be trimmed significantly in modern Biblical translations, such is their limited original appeal. Plagiarism, like embellishment and fabrication, has little use in our modern and more literal culture, and renders suspect the larger value of their work. Being a poet and for many years a composer myself, I have no real patience with such “copy cat” material, regardless of whether or not it is culturally sanctioned. Others would likely disagree, and do find these Gospels singularly useful.
With some exceptions then, I gained more from Mark’s and John’s Gospels than from the two middle-written ones. Mark’s Gospel is energetically journalistic to a point, while John’s is more meditatively quasi-divinistic. I do not, however, agree that John’s Gospel attempts to render Jesus as co-equal to God, as He repeatedly denies such a declaration in favour of His (human) subservience to “Abba, (my) Father.” I prefer John’s Gospel over the earlier ones, because it has a greater range of events and lengthier discourses from Jesus Himself in the middle portion. It singularly has the Lazarus resurrection, along with Jesus’ questioning of Peter about his devotion to Jesus, after the latter’s resurrection. We even get the specific counting of 153 fish in a net. For me, Mark and John thus serve as the best-known foundations for where to begin concerning our contemplation of Jesus Christ. Other sources, particularly the Roman historian, Josephus, only tell us that He existed, but too little more. There will never be enough factual information about Jesus to satisfy anyone, though we do have the cherished Shroud of Turin (John 20:1-9).
So what is the plausibly factual picture of the duration and scope of Jesus’ ministry in his native Israel in the First Century C.E.? This Jewish healer-teacher-prophet-Mashiach and Son of God traveled throughout portions of Israel, with at least several visits to Jerusalem to attend the Jewish festivals, for two to three years (John’s Gospel mentions three Passovers), which scholars generally find to be reasonable. After displaying a slightly miraculous tendency at a wedding in Cana, during which He merely turned water into wine, Jesus’ family and other towns-people turned against Him in Nazareth, and so His itinerant mission began in earnest. Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist (perhaps His cousin) is the subject of some scholarly debate: was Jesus originally a disciple of John’s for perhaps several months or even a few years, or did they first met at the River Jordan, when John baptized Jesus to begin His ministry? All four Gospels portray Jesus as an extra-ordinary young man: full of spiritual wisdom, a spell-binding teacher and repeatedly a miraculous healer. He is of little value to us, two thousand years later, if these basic descriptions of Him are not historically true, since other such persons are nearly lost to history. Jesus Christ can not only be the nicest guy we have never met.
About the disciples. Jesus chose twelve young men like Himself, some having been followers of John, to represent the twelve tribes of Israel re-gathered for His spiritual purpose: to up-raise the Jews out of their chronic sense of idolatry and oppression. These disciples were likely not well-educated, perhaps could not read, and spent their time trying to decipher Jesus’ words and actions on a daily basis—largely in a state of perpetual confusion, yet also deeply attracted to what He was saying and doing. It remains surprising that none of them abandoned Jesus during His ministry, even long before the end. I have repeatedly read and heard both scholars and the clergy deriding these disciples, but my response to this is Could you have done any better, knowing the story as you do? His disciples needed to see Jesus after the resurrection, not just Thomas but all of them, and their own subsequent martyred deaths define their devotion to Him.
The four Gospels tell many stories about Jesus’ mission, some fleetingly and others in greater detail. The chronology sometimes gets jumbled, some of the details are slippery, and clearly the authors want to present Him positively. We always have to remember the Gospels are being written to impress others about Him, to the point of, I believe, perhaps sometimes just making things up. Jesus walking on water in a storm while the disciples are stranded in a boat does not seem to have an overarching purpose. Barrabas may well be a fictional character, since there is no historical evidence for a Roman law allowing Pontius Pilate to spare a prisoner at Passover. How can we know what Jesus says to God in Gethsemane or that He is agitatedly bleed sweat when He was alone? We can only compare our intermittent dis-ease with some details of these stories to the swelling turmoil the disciples feel ongoingly. Any reader of the Gospels has to answer a basic question: does the main thrust of spiritual purpose of Jesus make sense to us, despite the style of story-telling, and what do we do with what we read for ourselves and others? What do we do with this frequent sense of utter astonishment and sometimes fear that Jesus (Yeshua) provoked in His Jewish brethren?
All four Gospels spend considerable time on Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and variably so, His resurrection. Amidst this situation, I do not fault Judas Iscariot as “the worst person who ever lived,” as I do not think Jesus actually said this about one of His own disciples. Judas wanted Jesus’ mission to be heard by the Sanhedrin, nor do I think he expected to be paid for his efforts. If Judas did hang himself, that is explanation enough. Jesus rather circuitously winds up before Pontius Pilate, who was removed from office by the Romans in 36 C.E. for being excessively brutal, so how does this fact square with his rather lenient posture in the Gospels? Jesus was soon scourged, itself a horrible punishment, before then dragging the cross-beam to Golgotha to be crucified. There are about 120 lash-marks on the body on the Shroud of Turin, and this treatment alone could define Jesus as something other than a mere mortal, since He almost volunteers for this torture. Nearly all of His disciples either denied knowing Him or did not show up for the crucifixion, again not surprising, since by this point they were beyond being perplexed. Several women were brave enough to witness Jesus dying on the cross, as women have always been more votively inclined than we men ever since. After reading a detailed medical description of crucifixion, I fainted for the one and only time in my life, so their bravery admiringly stuns me. “John” (described as Jesus’ favourite disciple, not necessarily one of the Twelve) found both the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oveido (face-cloth) in the tomb, and so “everything begins” as to who He might really be: the end-less speculation, the dogma—-yet something “goes divine.”
As we know, Jesus subsequently appeared not only to His disciples, but also to perhaps many others, after His resurrection. Historians, such as Grant, immediately say that this can not be confirmed factually, which is almost true. If we look at what occurs in the lengthy time that comes (mainly the rest of the 1st Century C.E.), then something originally important had occurred: Paul’s conversion, the disciples’ martyrdom, and the rather still-inexplicable increase in Christian “membership” after Paul’s death in ca. 64 C.E. as well as the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.), which resulted in their second Temple being destroyed by the Romans. Paul had not been significantly successful in converting many Jews to the new Christian faith, largely relying on polytheistic Gentiles looking for “something new.” This evolving schism between Christians and Jews would harden by the end of the 2nd Century C.E., and remains so to this day. The real question is how this expansion steadily occurred at a rate of 30-40% increase per decade until Constantine made Christianity an approved religion in the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century C.E., by which time there were more than three million Christians. This expansion and some reasons for its success are described in New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s newest book, The Triumph of Christianity (2018). These include: 1) the steady shrinkage of paganism, partly due to their chronic weariness in having so many gods to worship; 2) the evangelizing mission of Christianity, which was a religiously novel approach; and 3) people saw examples of Christian service to others, which could not be explained away. Most converts to Christianity were initially, like the disciples, poorer and under-educated, but later the wealthy and better-educated began to follow suit. Is there something else that best explains this “triumph of success?”
Unlike we modernly skeptical people, in the 1st Century C.E. the possibility or likelihood that there was a super-natural plane of existence was readily accepted. There was no real science yet to persuade them otherwise. Somehow those who had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection convinced those who had not that this event had actually occurred, and so He was to be worshipped in the company of others who also “believed.” The rub is that belief and experience are hardly the same, and once the disciples and others who had originally witnessed Jesus’ resurrection had died, how did Christianity continue to spread? Ehrman posits the concept of “going to Hell” as a persuasive factor, but why would this be sufficiently explanatory? That concept is more reflective of the Catholic Church, which slowly organized itself beginning around the 4th-5th Century, with Augustine as a principal inspiration. By then, there were already millions of Christians. There were certainly early Christian martyrs, but that also seems insufficient. The Gospels were not yet organized in book form, and most people were illiterate. Paul’s on-going influence after his death is at best unclear. Dogma in the Catholic Church evolved over centuries. In his wonderful book, The Triumph of Christianity (2011), sociologist Rodney Stark posits Christian service to the victims of multiple plagues in the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries as a significant influence on pagans to convert, since altruism was considered anathema in their own religious thinking. Perhaps this puts to rest the old “faith vs. works” controversy, from James on to Martin Luther: do Jesus’ work, and we shall become popular.
The only thing that may truly explain the “triumphant success” of Christianity’s growth from the Roman Empire to Europe would be Jesus’ resurrection itself, as no such event, as confirmed by first-hand witnesses, had ever occurred before in the history of humankind. Our acceptance of Jesus basically depends on whether His resurrection makes sense to us—chafing against our scientific orientation, yet harnassed by it nonetheless. He was hardly the only person to be crucified, that being the awful prelude to Easter morning. Crucifixion and resurrection are bound together for Jesus—one without the other is not enough. It is however His resurrection becomes true in each one of us. For many people, this comes from the Bible and from church. For others, there must also be “something else.” For me, it is that peculiar photographic cloth, measuring three by fourteen feet, hanging in a chapel in Turin, Italy since 1578, that matters most. An off-colour replica hangs in one of my bedrooms. Yet everything we know about Jesus also matters. Maybe it is only He who truly fingers our souls.
Pope Benedict XVI posited that our Christian faith hangs on the crucifixion and resurrection, since, as Grant points out, Jesus otherwise failed in His mission in Palestine. He was abandoned by nearly everyone at the end, and, had there been no resurrection, He too would likely be merely an historical curiosity as another Jewish “false prophet” who raised their hopes to be released from Roman rule. All the parables and other teachings, all the miracles and the crucifixion were not enough to convince the shakably faithful that He was indeed the Mashiach, their Messiah. Grant surmises that Jesus was uncomfortable with all of the labels attached to Him, hence His evasive answers before Pilate when asked: Who are you? The question for everyone who could not have witnessed either Jesus’ crucifixion or return amongst us, down through all the many centuries, is what does this mean? How do we “believe in the unseen,” occasionally to the point of martyrdom? What was the real purpose of Jesus Christ?
The Catholic Church, through dogmatic teachings in the centuries after Jesus, tried to answer this question with what illiterate people could more easily remember: He died for our sins, as Jesus Himself said, He came to aid the poor and heal the sick as well as showing us how to better treat each other. There is atonement for our sins, there is transubstantiation during the Eucharist, there is the veneration of Mary and a sense of what Heaven might be like. This all can become overly vague symbolism, which slides into churchy platitudes and thus congregational head-scratching. Jesus too easily becomes what we can say about Him in words and phrases that form creeds to be memorized, as though that is enough. Reciting creeds makes us holier only for that moment, which then tends to evaporate too soon. Rather, we never forget what Jesus Himself said and did. He worked outdoors a lot as time went on, bypassing the synagogues that hemmed Him in, as with the Sermon on the Mount, not having to worry so much about rain in Palestine. Jesus, before the Christian church fully formed, interests me the most—less than three centuries before the Council of Nicea provoked and never really settled the long parade of incessant bickering about who and what Jesus was and is. It began with the Trinity, and it has never stopped. Jesus could have explained what “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” meant to Him. It would have helped, a lot.
Who was Jesus Christ? He was our tangible, clutchable human linkage to God for a very few years, the kind of radiance that shines beyond Him upon us once we stop to ponder our world. Jesus transcended traditional Judaism by rendering Himself both the embodiment and the sacrifice—not of lambs, but as a man—bringing God into a newly-acute Jewish focus which could not be ignored. After many years in the spiritual wilderness, I now see Him all the time, because I can. As with God, we most commonly come to Him, not the other way around. How many generations of Christians are envious of those first ones who witnessed Jesus outright, to experience that intensity of spiritual surprise, to be slapped awake by the hands of God?
As no one ever speculates about Jesus’ “long apprenticeship,” no one ever speculates about what He has been doing since reaching Heaven, in ca. 30 C.E. The strangest part of being a Christian is knowing that He in whom we believe remains unseeable, unless we are granted His visitation, all of our lives. What does Jesus do in Heaven? We do not know. It is said that He watches over us, as does God. Does He grant prayerful wishes, or is that God’s job? For me, Jesus became swollenly divine as His mission continued, and became fully divine at the moment of His resurrection. Do we become divine when we die? We assume so. I pray to God rather than to Jesus, because I can not articulate His own particular purpose in Heaven, that He still mainly “works for God.” Thus, Jesus is always spoken of as a past living figure, that, ironically, His resurrection leaves us without a seeable man to learn from and be inspired by to live our lives. We are told that it had to be this way, which is true. We have to come to Him, to partake of His body and blood (in what one rabbi crudely calls “ritualistic cannibalism”), introject or absorb Him as best we can, and do so on a daily basis for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, it never stops. Every day, He hangs on my bedroom wall, and I look at Him—that is the best church. The long, longest time since He died shrinks down to nothing as I find Him yet again. God said it had to be this way. Finally, there is no real absence from Him. Amen.