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What About Jesus?

From time to time I’d like to use this space to respond to questions I’ve received from readers of this blog.   Here’s one for today:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the existence of Jesus is not questioned–just maybe some of the details surrounding his life.  So if he did exist and if he did inspire people with his teachings then what do we do with that?  If we do not see him as the son of God, then was he just some kind of crazy person who was very persuasive?

The consensus among scholars is that, yes, Jesus did in fact exist.   He probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher of the apocalyptic variety who attracted some followers.  He was executed by the authorities.  The movement he inspired lived on after his death and quickly morphed into various groups with vastly differing theologies.  Beyond that there is not much we can say with any certainty at all about the life of Jesus.

The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters of Paul, which predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by decades.  Paul does not mention the teachings or miracles of  Jesus.  This is beyond curious.  I’ve heard all the usual responses to this strange omission,  and they are all very weak.  Paul also makes no mention of a “virgin birth.”     His account of the resurrection includes none of the details that we associate with the Easter story.   In fact Paul seems to describe more of a “spiritual” resurrection of divine visions and appearances  in contrast to the  emphasis on a bodily resurrection we see in the gospel accounts.

It seems probable that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were actually put in his mouth posthumously. I also think it’s very likely that many of the teachings of Paul that sound like something Jesus would have said were later re-packaged as quotes from Jesus.

Over the centuries, Jesus has become a religious Rorschach test.  People tend to project on him the values that are near and dear to their hearts.  Conservatives see him espousing traditional conservative virtues.  Liberals see him as a champion of social justice, exercising a “preferential option for the poor.”   Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites see him as a pacifist.    Most Christians, however,  subscribe to the “just war” theory, also based on Jesus’ teachings.  Years ago Jerry Falwell even said he was sure Jesus would approve of using nuclear weapons when necessary.

In the end, what we say about Jesus most certainly says more about us than it does about him.   And in that respect, studying the figure of Jesus is a fascinating window into the complexities of human nature.

 

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  1. June 5, 2012 at 12:05 am

    You never disappoint me. Incredible blog!

  2. C. John Stutzer
    June 5, 2012 at 10:55 am

    So well put Mike. It does always come back to Man interpreting God.

    Hosanna hey sanna sanna sanna ho…

    Hey JC won’t you die for me,

    sanna ho sanna hey superstar!

  3. June 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    So if he was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod? Was there something particularly different about him that caused people to put words in his mouth, to idolize him and to start the Christian movement? Were there other political/religious issues going on at the time that put Jesus in the right place at the right time to be propped up as a savior to an unsettled population? It’s a pretty amazing thing for one person to wield such influence over 2 thousand years so I just wonder what circumstances helped perpetuate it. I am sure many people and companies would love to know that secret!

    • June 7, 2012 at 12:53 am

      Kim,
      Will try to address some of these questions in a follow-up post tomorrow. Thanks for participating!

  4. C. John Stutzer
    June 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    kimsac :
    So if he was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod? Was there something particularly different about him that caused people to put words in his mouth, to idolize him and to start the Christian movement? Were there other political/religious issues going on at the time that put Jesus in the right place at the right time to be propped up as a savior to an unsettled population? It’s a pretty amazing thing for one person to wield such influence over 2 thousand years so I just wonder what circumstances helped perpetuate it. I am sure many people and companies would love to know that secret!

  5. C. John Stutzer
    June 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    @kimsac

    Reads to me that you answered your own questions…

  6. Blood
    June 7, 2012 at 3:53 am

    I think we should be highly skeptical of any theological claims, especially the ones that say “this is beyond question.” While it’s certainly true that many historic figures later became legend, in the ancient world it was often the reverse — gods became gradually historicized as the cultural elite became less credulous. In Greece this process was called euhemerization. Never forget that our primary sources for Kurios Christos are anonymous, undated, unprovenanced theological and polemical texts written by evangelists. Similar texts from the ancient world are easily and uncontroversially classified as myth.

  7. Julia
    June 7, 2012 at 4:20 am

    So what exactly did Paul’s letters say regarding Jesus if he never mentioned virgin birth or miracles?
    I have no doubt of man putting their own spin on Jesus, but what has always amazed me the most is the conservatives who say Jesus would have been a pro-war Republican. From what I learned in Sunday school Jesus sounds like he would have been more of a peaceful hippy.

  8. toby4612
    June 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    @kimsac

    I think Mike addressed part of your question with his thoughts on the fact that everyone interprets Jesus differently. Your assumption seems to imply that Jesus is so remarkable that he has had followers for 2000 years, but I would argue that Jesus has had very few followers that follow his actual teachings (at least the teaching presented in modern gospels). Bart Ehrman wrote a great book called, “Lost Christianities” were he reviews the evidence for very different versions of Christianity that we would not recognize being “Christian” in the 1st and 2nd centuries. This same trend has continue to today with thousands of “Christian” religions.

    What teachings or stories did Jesus write down himself?

    What teachings or stories did Jesus’ followers write down?

    What teachings or stories did eye witnesses of Jesus write down?

    The answer to all three of these questions is the same. “We have no writings from Jesus or eye witnesses of Jesus.” The stories we do have about Jesus are all from non-eye witnesses who spoke a different language and lived in a different country than Jesus and wrote these stories down many decades after his death. This means the stories were told and re-told until they were eventually written down by their authors (none of whom were Jesus or his disciples). The writings we do have profoundly disagree on many significant points. Later writings are more sensational than earlier writings (more supernatural claims). But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the teachings of Jesus that we do have are accurate. How many people do you know who actually follow these supposed teachings?

    Final point: Mohammad has had followers for 1,400 years (or so) and Moses has had followers for 3,400 years (or so). Do we make the same conclusions about Moses and Mohammad that we do about Jesus?

  9. Lumanis Scribe
    June 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Mike,

    You asked what kind of people are reading your blog? I have been an atheist since 18 (50 years ago :), and have some friends that are former pastors that have become enlightened :). There is a good book called “The Tender Trap” that highlights the problems pastors have when they lose their beliefs, but are surrounded by their “tribe”.

    I was using “StumbleUpon”, and that is how I came across your speech to the Houston humanist group. Great speech :). I think I was attracted to your speech because I am aware of the plight of pastors.

    The arc of my escape from religion went like this: raised Methodist, skeptical as a teenager, actually spoke with a woman when I was in High School who had doubts – FIRST TIME I ever heard that from an adult. A couple of years later, I “decided” not to believe in God any more. I spent 6 months in mortal fear that “God” would strike me dead. After 6 months, I realized there wasn’t a God to strike me dead, and I got over it. I spent the next 10 years arguing religion (and poking at it) with anyone who would rise to my baits. Then I got over the “arguing” phase, and settled into a long term lonely existence where my only companions were the good books on evolution, memes, cosmology, etc. I majored in Physics in college, which gave me a profound confidence in science.

    So…many years later I make friends with Curtis Smith, the pastor who has fallen away from the church. He said he spent the last 15 years of his life working outside the church, which was a great relief for him, as he didn’t have to preach things he didn’t believe any more. But I find it fascinating to watch his “journey”. He is working through things I worked through when I was 18. He has written several books (check out “Amazon” for Curtis Smith), such as “Eagle Song”. As a friend, he eagerly seeks my feedback. I have to tell him, he is still mired deeply in allegory. The books are so mystical and allegorical, and I have striven so very very hard in my life to root out all mysticism, that I can hardly stomach his books. I like him as a friend, and celebrate his “working through” his process of changing his identity, but I can see how long it is going to take, because mysticism still enthralls him.

    I was glad to see you were much more skeptical of mysticism, as nearly as I could tell from your talk, so I think you are much further along in your “identity change”. And it is an identity change to go from a faithful believer to a free thinker. And as always, changing something as fundamental as your identity is about the hardest thing a human can do.

    I salute you :).

    Roger Matthews
    (Lumanis is a contraction of “luminary humanist” – not that I’m very illuminary 🙂 )

    • June 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm

      Roger,
      Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m honored you’ve checked out the blog.
      And, yes, I have no use for mysticism. Reality is so much more interesting.

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