Honest to God
We continue to benefit from the fortnightly column of Ian Harris in the Otago Daily Times.
We reprint with Ian's permission this remarkably perceptive piece that appeared so helpfully early in Advent. "So just who was this Jesus?" Ian Harris draws a distinction between the Jesus of history, of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph - and the Jesus of faith, known as the Christ who emerged from the early Christian community These are not in conflict, but at Christmas they are wonderfully drawn together.
SO just who was this Jesus whose birth billions of people will celebrate this month? My previous column sketched the way contemporary scholars across the spectrum – Christian, Jewish, humanist, sceptical – have delved into history to answer that question. A broad consensus has emerged – and two major questions still lie open.
In his book Who on Earth was Jesus?, English Quaker and humanist David Boulton sums up the “almost indisputable facts” most scholars would sign up to, while conceding that all of them would want to add their own two-penn’orth.
First, Jesus lived. Historical research has finally laid to rest the quaint conspiracy theory that the early church made up the human Jesus to ground its developing cult of the Christ figure in a flesh-and-blood personality. No, he was born to a mother named Mary, probably in Nazareth, about 4BC. All the rich detail embroidering the Christmas story, including Bethlehem, the virgin birth, the shepherds, a star guiding wise men from the east, the heavenly choir, and the flight to Egypt are there for good theological reasons and especially for the links they made with the Jews’ religious heritage. They can still be appreciated as such. But they are not eye-witness accounts.
Jesus lived in Galilee, in northern Palestine, joining the rough-hewn prophet John the Baptist in the wilderness before beginning a ministry of teaching and healing in the Galilean villages. The core of his preaching was the kingdom of God as an earthly possibility, and it was characterised by memorable sayings and vivid illustrations drawn from the life of the people around him – a wayward son, a peasant sowing seeds, a lost coin. His reputation grew as a prophet and holy man: healings and miracles were attributed to him. Many people were attracted to him, and some became his disciples.
About 30AD he travelled south to Jerusalem, where he was arrested as a trouble-maker and put to death by the Roman authorities. However, his followers came to believe that he had burst back from the dead and his spirit would guide them in spreading his message of God’s kingdom.
So that’s it: the mainstream scholarly consensus in the early 21st century points to the Jesus of history as a wisdom teacher, a charismatic sage, a healer, a good man unjustly executed.
From the beginning, however, a stream of letters, gospels, dialogues and papyrus fragments tell more than the bare facts of history. Without exception they spring from the period after Jesus’ death as his followers tried to make sense of his continuing influence on them. That took them beyond memories of what he said and did during his life to interpreting these in a context of ultimate meaning and purpose; beyond a historical template into the language of poetry, mythology and religion – which is why the stories embellishing Christmas still resonate.
If a single word can encapsulate that post-Jesus experience, it is “Christ” – and there the consensus ends. What are we to understand by the term today? Is it a legitimate development from the historical Jesus? Was Jesus God as well as man? By “kingdom of God” did he mean a radically transformed way of living in the here and now, or a cataclysmic supernatural intervention when God would impose his rule on Earth? On all these questions, scholars argue both extremes and every shade between.
Whatever, it was the Christ as principle, presence and power who quickly became the dynamic heart of the infant faith. Here you move beyond what history can establish and into the subjective realm of the creative imagination. Here the test is not the analysis of objective facts, but the power to enrich and enlarge human experience – which is the point of religion at its best.
In Christianity Jesus is the historical aspect, Christ the mythic or creative, and neither is complete without the other. Different views of Jesus over time have led to different ways of thinking about Christ – but that should not faze anyone, for every generation is free to bring its own needs, knowledge, world-view and creativity to bear in shaping its own religious understanding. As Irish American scholar John Dominic Crossan says, “Christianity must repeatedly, generation after generation, make its best historical judgment about who Jesus was then [that is, as a man in history] and, on that basis, decide what that reconstruction means as Christ now.”
Christmas comes alive when the history and the poetry, the human and the mythic, Jesus and the Christ, are glimpsed and hold together.