The Historical Jesus – Part 1 of 3
What do we really know about Jesus? Well, for those of us who live according to the “for the Bible tells me so” mentality, there is quite a lot. But not everyone gives the Bible the credibility it deserves. Those who consider the Bible to be pseudo-history, or partial history, might say we know very little. In either case, most would agree that the modern view of Jesus falls short of describing Him accurately.
For one thing, the fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus does not fit the eastern Mediterranean profile. In other words, Jesus looked nothing like a bearded Chris Hemsworth. In fact, the absence of middle-eastern features is one of the first discrepancies that dispelled the myth of the Shroud of Turin.
Another area that does not jibe is what I like to call “nimbus Jesus”. This is the idea that Jesus just seemed to glide from place to place, dressed in white, speaking in the flowery language of heaven to all who would listen. This Jesus always comes across as a mild-mannered victim of the most heinous of hate crimes.
Realistically, Jesus was dangerously radical. His teaching and actions challenged the religious, social, and political mores of the first century; not to mention the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
Consider these words of Jesus, as recorded in John 10:25-30:
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
This leader of a new Jewish sect, who was being touted by some as a fanatic and others as a messiah, was using the language of revolution. He claimed to come from God. He called His followers “sheep”. He promised them eternal life for their service, and He claimed to be God’s equal. The Roman Empire was not lenient on those whose zealotry reeked of revolt. Just 40 years or so after Jesus’ death, history records the brutal Roman siege of Jerusalem because of Jewish uprising against the empire. The Jews lost many lives, most of their prized relics, and the heart of their faith — Herod’s Temple.
Jesus was dangerous. Just after He spoke the words above, John says that the Jews “picked up stones to stone Him.” (John 10:31)
JESUS OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE
So is there anywhere else outside of the Scriptures where we can find historical evidence about Jesus? Absolutely.
The books of the New Testament are not the only early sources to mention Jesus of Nazareth. Historical records by Thallus, Tacitus, and Josephus all mention Jesus and His followers, as do the Gnostic pseudo-gospels and a number of other letters and books from the first and second centuries. The genuine existence and influence of a Jewish rabbi known as Jesus, who lived during the days of Caesars Augustus and Tiberius, is hard to dispute, despite a number of conspiracy theories arguing the contrary.
In 1906, a brilliant physician, musician, and theologian named Albert Schweitzer published the indelible work The Quest for the Historical Jesus. In it, Schweitzer chronicles “scholarly” descriptions of Jesus during different eras of history after the 1st Century. Depending on who initiated them, these quests were intended to either confirm the biblical view of Jesus’ life, or to separate the Jesus of history from the dogma of the Christian religion.
As scholars delved into this “quest,” something funny happened. Funny, but not surprising. In nearly every case, each scholar’s most innovative conclusions produced a Jesus that conveniently supported his own worldview. WHY? Because to separate Jesus from the world, or the Church, depending on one’s perspective, makes it possible for a person to make Jesus whoever he or she wants Him to be.
Jesus, therefore, can be depicted as a member of any race, nationality, or ideology. Jesus can support tyranny and democracy at the same time. He can be liberal, conservative, or a member of the Perot family. Jesus can support Moses or Muhammad, Stalin or Solzhenitsyn, the President or the Pope.
According to Schweitzer,
“Hate as well as love can write a life of Jesus and the greatest of them are written with hate.”
Schweitzer did not mean to suggest that anyone on these quests actually hated Jesus, but rather they hated the Jesus their opponents had created. Schweitzer’s conclusion has perplexed the Christian culture for more than a century now. He concluded that the Jesus of history was simply that…history. The Church’s view of Jesus simply could not be accurate, and Jesus merely believed Himself to be the fulfillment of His own Jewish worldview and its hopes for emancipation. In other words, even Jesus made Himself into the Jesus He wanted to be.
What a tragic conclusion Dr. Schweitzer came to. In his quest to discover what he believed to be the “true” Jesus, he was guilty of committing the same mistake he had lamented in others: fashioning his own Jesus. Oddly enough, having mythologized Jesus in many ways, Schweitzer spend the rest of his life serving in Africa as a medical missionary under the auspices of Christianity.
For most Christians, Schweitzer’s conclusion seems pretty depressing. From another point of view, however, Schweitzer did Christianity a favor by exposing many fake Jesuses.
Are we also guilty of making Jesus into who we want Him to be as opposed to who He really was and is? The real Jesus was not and is not defined by convenience. If our goal is to make Jesus into whomever or whatever we want Him to be, we will have successfully fashioned an impotent imitation.
May we never take lightly what it means to worship the true Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. As the book of Hebrews begins:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
Next up: Part 2 – Who did Jesus claim to be?