The Historical Jesus….or not

Okay, this is not a place for diplomacy nor do I feel much like being diplomatic. I’ve used up all my tact for the year.

People who say of Christianity that “it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus was an historical person or not” don’t know jack-sh*t about Christianity. Yes, I know, there are many attempts to “reincarnate” Jesus and get back to the “real” Jesus, the one that was supposedly the “historical” Jesus. If you’ve never read any of that literature you just don’t don’t know the limits to which intellectual gymnastics can be taken. I’m not saying it’s not a worthwhile endeavor. The claims of Christianity or any dogmatic belief need to be examined and questioned. It just seems to me the speculation on both sides is rife.

Let me tell you a story. Where I work some of my fellow employees of a liberal and free thinking bent found out I had once been a Presbyterian minister. Yes, that’s right. I thought myself to have been “converted” from a rather marginal and lukewarm Methodist tradition to a full blown, born-again, Bible Believing, Calvinistic “fundamentalist” in 1970 and continued on that path until around 1999 or so. I was ordained in 1981 and relinquished, or rather had my ordination credentials taken away in 1997. They were not taken away for “apostasy” although recently I was accused of being “lead astray by the Devil”, that’s Devil with a big “D”, and perhaps even being an incarnation of his Infernal Majesty. It’s too bad that’s not the case, perhaps I could arrange to win the lottery if it were.

In that tradition Fundamentalism is taken to mean what Harry Fosdick of Union Seminary meant when he coined the term in 1922 [] which is believing in the “fundamentals” of the faith. These are enumerated as the Virgin Birth,  Verbal Inspiration of the Bible, Vicarious Atonement, Bodily Resurrection of Jesus and the Second Coming (which is sort of bodily). Some would add the Divinity of Jesus to that list. Here is what Fosdick has to say.

“It is interesting to note where the Fundamentalists are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which no one is to pass except on terms of agreement. They insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord; that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration—that the original documents of the Scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer; that we must believe in a special theory of the Atonement—that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner; and that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here, as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement. Such are some of the stakes which are being driven to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church.”

In this vein this was not an anti-intellectual exercise for red-necks with only a sixth grade education. The seminary where I learned this fundamentalism had been founded, and it’s first teachers taken from the ranks of, Princeton Theological Seminary. These were not dumb people. Nor are they in some backwater pocket of isolated thinking. This is, at heart, the theology of modern Evangelicalism with only minor exceptions. This is just simply and plainly traditional Christianity the way it has been believed and practiced for centuries. You can argue all you like about what Jesus thought of himself if indeed he existed. You can argue about the sources of the Gospels and later accretions and additions to the text. You can argue about alternate Christianities and the Gnostic gospels, but ever since the Council of Nicaea what I have described here has been Christianity. Central to that faith is the historicity of Jesus, and not just ANY Jesus.

If any Biblical “author” has influenced the gentile manifest ion of Christianity it was, without a doubt, the man known as “the Apostle to the Gentiles”, the former Saul of Tarsus, the infamous Paul. The writings of Paul have done more to formulate the theology of Christianity than any other author of Biblical texts (assuming of course HE existed and actually wrote the documents attributed to him). Leaving that aside for the moment, the views expressed in the extent documents included in the canon and attributed to Paul have all but made Christianity what it is. So here is the pitch, 1 Corinthians 15, 12 – 19.

“12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. “

Basically, if Jesus wasn’t actually bodily raised from the dead after a vicarious atoning death on the cross, Christianity is worse than just wrong, it is a waste of time, it is a pitiful futility and useless. The core teaching of historical Christianity (meaning that which has been taught and believed for centuries) is the bodily resurrection of the perfect God-man Jesus after the atoning sacrifice of the crucifixion. Anything else is not Christianity. You can like it or lump it, that’s the skinny. Obviously, if Jesus was not an historical person, none of this happened, none of it is true. You can’t have traditional, historical Christianity without an historical Jesus, you just can’t. Not only do you need an historical Jesus, you need a PARTICULAR historical Jesus. All this claptrap about “it doesn’t matter whether he lived or not it’s what he taught” is just bullshit. Yep, bullshit!

So, back to my story. After my co-workers found out I was an atheist and had abandoned Christianity they went on a quest to find some incarnation of Jesus I would find palatable. For some reason they seemed to think I had thrown the baby out with the bath water and there was some way to reclaim the baby Jesus (pun intended) while throwing out the dirty water of traditional Christianity. My response was “why?”. Any Jesus other than the one in the Gospels later expounded in the Epistles and accepted and worshiped for centuries as the founder and leader of Christianity was not Jesus and had no more claim to being the “historical” Jesus then the one presented in the New Testament. It’s all speculation and dancing on pin heads.

As much as I applaud Jefferson’s attempt to excise from the New Testament everything he found onerous and retain only that which he found acceptable (probably one of the first people to practice Literary Criticism of the Theological variety) and thus recapture the “pure”, “historical” Jesus stripped of supernatural superstition and religious mythology it is a futile quest. It is pointless. There is no need. I mean really, is Jesus WORTH trying to reclaim? Other than as an exercise in the history of religion and religious text, of Textual and Literary Criticism of an attempt at Historical reconstruction, why bother? This was the error of my colleagues. Somehow they thought I NEEDED to hang onto Jesus somehow, someway. All they were proposing was another fantasy.

Here I have to admit that Sam Harris is my new “home boy”. This guy is awesome, not perfect, but really, really awesome. Why is he awesome? He is saying out loud, in public and righteously defending the ideas I’ve had in my head for a decade (now is that narcissistic or what?). Seriously, I like what this guy has to say and the way he says it. I applaud his approach and manner. From what I understand of his background he is someone with whom I resonate. Hitchins, Dawkins and Dennett are fine but give me Harris any time!

The argument to which I refer is “Why do you think the Bible is so profound”? Is this really the best we can do? Are the words and sayings of Jesus and the edited events of his life so unique and laudable that he needs to be held up as such a paragon of religious innovation and wisdom? Frankly, I would say no. There really isn’t anything Jesus said or did that can’t be found in profusion from other moral or religious thinkers who proceeded him. Okay, sure, it’s great to see yet another person advocating some high moral values and perhaps elevated religious ideas (however fallacious those religious tenets might be) but really, is he really the epitome of the evolution of moral and religious thought? Even if you excise out everything else and try to get down to “The Best of Jesus”, I’m not impressed.

So, Christianity without an historical Jesus, in fact without the Jesus of the unedited New Testament is not Christianity, it’s something else. You can call it whatever you like but it’s not really Christianity. Call it Neo-Christianity or whatever you may but you’re not foolin’ me folks you’re just foolin’ yourselves. What you really need to ask is why you’re so stuck on Jesus that you can’t just jettison the whole mess and find something else or make up your own. Is the mythology of Christianity so compelling you would rather believe it and hang on to it even as a symbolic, metaphorical expression of some truth, whatever you think that might be, than try to go out and find the truth? Are you so enraptured by the pagentry that you can’t pull your eyes and mind away from the distraction long enough to see the wonder of the real world?

Merry Christmas!

One response to “The Historical Jesus….or not

  1. I think what is critical to the section from Corinthians you quoted which speaks volumes about why many people who are otherwise fairly rational and fairly intelligent is his conclusion itself; the Christian faith NEEDS Jesus to be anything but worthless, and so for those who define themselves by their faith in Christ, to allow that Jesus probably didn't do the things alleged to him would mean the loss of identity. Some people can do this but have a ready replacement, be it another faith or the belief that, given enough time, Science can explain everything hitherto thought mysterious or sacred. I think the most useful bit of wisdom I have gained in my life is to examine and consider those things most important to you and your attachment to them, and then consider if that attachment is reasonable. Attachment to your loved ones seems reasonable in most situations, but attachment to an idea or ideal from a book that has been retranslated, recopied, and republished HUNDREDS of times doesn't seem very reasonable, especially given that such attachment flies in the face of the laws of the universe as we know them and, in many instances, logic itself.

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