My heretical take on the Jesus of history

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National Geographic Jesus

I’m going to say a few things about the Jesus of history. Many will no doubt consider them to be outright heretical things. Its one of those “sticky” topics.. A topic that can easily offend. I’m not going to get into all the implications of my thoughts here, or attempt to flush out too thoroughly who I think Jesus was or what he should represent as I would have to write an entire book. If not an entire library! Though a few future blog posts may attempt to tackle it a bit. I will start by simply saying that not viewing Jesus as being literally God in the flesh with all the corresponding miracles doesn’t automatically “kill Christianity.” It changes the approach and the tone for sure, but doesn’t remove the spiritual depth and meaning that can be found in its practices, or in communing with the “divine.” However one chooses to interpret the divine.

The party line of course that is towed is very simple. He was literally God incarnate, God made flesh, end of story. There are some slight, nuanced variations on that theme. From Jesus as wholly Divine (but in the flesh), to both wholly Divine AND wholly human. A concept thats rather attractive, but still not in line with my thinking. Much like the concept of Buddha as more than human, almost God-like, is attractive also, but not in line with my thinking either. Not viewing him as such however doesn’t cheapen or dilute Buddhism either I’ll point out. But it does have a different spin on it than those that do have a more supernatural view of old Sid.

Without having to really go too much into how it just doesn’t jive with my everyday experience of reality to view Jesus as God incarnate. Which it doesn’t. But its also true that we have glimpsed through science, particularly in the field of quantum physics, that reality is much, much stranger than our everyday experience seems to tell us. So, by itself that isn’t much of an argument.

But I don’t think history supports the view either. One of the interesting things I’ve been reading by Episcopal (re: Anglican) Bishop John Shelby Spong, is that scholarly research into the order in which the Gospels of the New Testament where actually written (not just the order they appear in the Bible)  from Mark around 70 C.E. then Matthew around 80 C.E. Luke 90 C.E. finally John around 100 C.E. shows a clear evolution in the narrative of Jesus. The miracles associated with Jesus become more heightened over time. The Virgin birth seems to have been added to the story in the 8th decade and his ascension in the 10th decade. Before the evolution of the written narrative, the story of Jesus for the first 40 years or so after his death was an oral tradition. Likely told within the synagogue itself, before the early Christians formally split from there in the 8th decade. A place where stories were told in such a manner to be infused and intertwined with symbols and imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. The process of the tradition was much more concerned with infusing meaning and concepts into the story telling than it was with literal historical accuracy of it. In this fashion, over the years, the Hebrew Scriptures were wrapped around Jesus and through them Jesus was interpreted. This oral tradition resulted in what Biblical scholars from the Jesus Seminar ( a group of around 150 Ph.D scholars) estimate that only about 16% of the words that are directly attributed to Jesus are historically accurate. The remaining 84% are what has been “read into the Jesus of history by an interpreting community during on oral period.” Then the writing of the Gospels starts in the 7th decade. After the majority of what was known about Jesus had already been altered significantly by an oral tradition. Not to be intentionally misleading. Its just how stories where told in the first century Jewish community. They were tying Jesus into the religious tapestry of the time in a manner they could relate too, which was more important than telling it as a factual check list of events. Then the Gospels, that virtually all agree are certainly NOT eye witness accounts themselves, evolved the story further over the next several decades (this is actually fairly evident when they are read in chronological order).

Then there is of course the Didache. The Didache is a “gospel” that never made it into the New Testament.  It dates from the late first, or early second century. It was a handbook of sorts for new Christian converts, it contained many of the saying of Jesus told in the NT (New Testament), a number of sayings not included in the NT (though still consistent with what Jesus would have said) and also talked about baptism, prayer and the eucharist (commonly called communion). Interestingly the Eucharist in the Didache a simple thanksgiving meal of wine and bread with references to Jesus as the holy “vine of David,” but with no references to the body or blood of Jesus related to the remission of sins. It ends with a prayer: “Hosanna to the God of David,” emphasizing the Davidic lineage of Jesus. Another interesting thing was that there was also no mention of Jesus’s divinity. So here is a very early manuscript, within a century of the life of Jesus, detailing the belief and practices of the earliest Christians with no mention of Jesus as God, or as having raised from the dead. It in fact paints what is a very Jewish portrait of Jesus by some of his earliest followers.

In a time when numbers are plummeting in the pews, and more and more people are becoming “spiritual but not religious”, and “21st century brains can not twist themselves into 1st century pretzels” to accept the seemingly superstitious and fantastical views of Jesus, or his “redeeming humanity from original sin.” Christianity may be well served to at least be open to investigating a more rational, human, and I’ll be so bold as to suggest perhaps a more historically accurate portrait of what was clearly the remarkable person of Jesus.

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3 thoughts on “My heretical take on the Jesus of history

  1. How long do you have? My first dissertation was on Incarnation and the reasons why the early Church felt it imperative to express the full Divinity of Christ in absolute harmony with the full Humanity of Christ.

    Even as a card carrying bleeding heart liberal I am convinced of Jesus as an unique expression of God in human form – not in such a way that distances God from us but that brings the divine to humanity. But it’s far more nuanced than I could ever discuss here – I did wrestle a little with it in my Lenten talks on the Creed, but even then didn’t do justice to all that I think comes from this understanding of what it means to have divinity fully human. It’s one of those ‘words fail me’ moments.

    What I would say, though, is the divine humanity of Christ should not necessarily be too closely linked with either a doctrine of ‘Original Sin’ or every conflated with the idea that Christ was ‘more divine’ or some kind of ‘superhuman’ – the teachers of faith in the Early Church were very clear, Christ is what God looks like when fully human, that means finite, limited, and engaged with reality not distant, superpowered, and somehow not quite like us.

    Gonna stop now, this is the longest comment I have left on a blog for about three years. This is great, thanks for LOTS of food for thought and brilliantly said…

  2. You’re not quite as heretical as you might imagine. Try reading authors who have more to say than just a rehash of vacuous 20th century liberal Protestant theology, which is essentially what John Spong does. For example, try “Insight” by Bernard Lonergan.

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