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December 25, 2016
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
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
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