Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of 4 in a series on the historical Jesus.
What do we really know about Jesus? If you are believer in the "for the Bible tells me so" mentality, then you might argue we know a lot. 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 doesn't fit the eastern Mediterranean profile. In other words, Jesus looked nothing like a bearded "Sully" from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In fact, the absence of middle-eastern features is one of the first things that dispelled the myth of the Shroud of Turin.
Another area that just doesn't jive is what I like to call "nimbus Jesus". This is the idea that Jesus 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 (TNIV): Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father's name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. 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 a 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." (10:31)
But was the real Jesus really real? The books of the New Testament are not the only early sources that mention Jesus of Nazareth. Historical records by Thallus, Tacitus and Josephus all mention Jesus and his followers, as do the Gnostic gospels and a number of other letters and books from the first and second centuries. The genuine existence of an influential Jewish rabbi named Jesus is hard to refute, despite a number of conspiracy theories arguing the contrary.
In 1906, a famous physician, musician and theologian named Albert Schweitzer published his magnum opus entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus.
Schweitzer chronicles "scholarly" descriptions of Jesus during different eras of world history after the first century. Depending on who initiated them, these quests were intended to confirm the biblical view of Jesus' life or to separate the Jesus of history from the dogma of the Christian religion.
In either case, the conclusions reached produced a Jesus that conveniently supported their own worldviews. To separate Jesus from the world or the church, depending on one's perspective, provides freedom to make Jesus whomever one 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 Ross Perot fan club. Jesus can support Moses or Mohammed, 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 didn't 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. Oddly enough, having mythologized Jesus in many ways, Schweitzer spent 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 destroying the fake Jesus.
Ultimately, I will always be guilty of presenting Jesus according to my own point of view. At the same time, may we come to understand that 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.
Next up: Part 2 -- Who did Jesus actually claim to be?
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
Share this article: