December 12, 2011. Ho, ho, ho, here we go. I’m personally putting the Christ back in Christ-mess by finally finishing my two-part series on the historical Jesus. WWJRD? (What would Jesus really do?) He’d take a forty day desert vacation (lots of beach, sadly, no waves), pop open a bottle of water (and promptly turn it into wine), and retire after three years.
Before I offer my compiled list of what is true about Jesus, let me state, I’m a teacher with three kids and a folk band who happens to be really interested in studying religions and spirituality. I’m not a biblical scholar (though I did get really deep into Petra in middle school). I eat Greek–I don’t read it. So most of what I’m saying today is ripped off (as are most good ideas) from Bart Ehrman and other Bible brainiacs. But for my own curiosity, I wanted to create a simple list of those events most respected Biblical scholars–religious and nonreligious–agree really happened regarding the Big JC. As I mentioned in part one of this series (Jesus Louise? Who was he? Son of God or an apocalyptic nut-job?), there’s a slight conspiracy between what the academic community knows about the New Testament from historical analysis and what us measly laypeople are told (uh, like the Gospel of John, as cool as it might be for the guy who holds up those banners at baseball games, is also a lot of fiction). I was surprised to learn that most priests are taught this stuff at their Sunday School, so why don’t we hear about it at ours? Here’s the simple list, based on the criteria I talked about in my previous post, of what probably can be accepted as historically accurate about Jesus.The short list most historians agree on:
- Jesus was born to Mary and Joe during the time of King Herod in Nazareth. Unfortunately, much of the traditional nativity story was likely added later for theological reasons (sorry Santa, you’re not real). And there is no way to prove whether Mary was a virgin.
- Jesus was Jewish. He remained a Jew his whole life. Sadly, he was never given the chance to convert to Christianity.
- He probably could read. He spoke Aramaic. He was a laborer-carpenter, more inclined to making buckets and yokes than fine cabinetry. He was a Jewish teacher and prophet, and he was even called Rabbi.
- Most agree that Jesus had siblings–which means either Mary had lots of immaculate conceptions or she eventually became an un-virgin (sorry, I’m obsessed with poking fun at the Catholic obsession with Mary’s virginity).
- Most scholars believe Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist–an end-time prophet at the time–and then he went on to preach in the same manner. He spoke of the coming of the end of time.
- Jesus was betrayed by his own followers and crucified by the Romans, probably for being a rabble-rouser. I guess it did not take much at that time to get the old cross of wood treatment. Interesting note, most scholars agree that there was a card put over his head that read, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.” But since by their own admission, many of His followers abandoned Him at this time (this is probably true), there are no truly accurate accounts of the trail.
- Most importantly, many scholars agree, as Bart Ehrman argues, that when you cut away the fat from the Gospel and distill it down to what Jesus really, probably, most-likely said, you see more clearly that He was an apocalyptic prophet. This was a type of Jewish prophet somewhat common at the time who preached that God would soon intervene in the world. Many of his sayings and parables reflect an apocalyptic mindset: the idea that the end is near and justice will be served. At the core, and most interesting for me, is that this was His Good News, that God would soon take charge. Repent, the end is near. He was an end times prophet. In some of his most memorable and historically accurate talks, he spoke emphatically about the end times and the coming judgment. If he were alive today, he would be driving a beat-up station wagon with a giant speaker strapped to the roof, trolling down city streets and screaming repent.
Clearly, Jesus was a dynamic, charismatic guy, or he would not have made such a splash. Scholars disagree whether the earliest texts show that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God or The Messiah, though many agree that much of the more explicit “Son of God” stuff in the Bible was pumped up long after JC’s death. In some of the most historically accurate passages, there’s still debate about whether Jesus was referring to another Son of Man or Messiah to come or himself (there’s also a lot of debate over what these terms even meant at that time). And, of course, there’s a lot of arguing over Jesus’ miracles, since these, by their nature, are very hard to prove or disprove (including the resurrection). What is clear is that His earliest followers expected the eminent end of time. Paul’s letters, which are some of the oldest writings about Jesus, reflect this apocalyptic view. Much of Paul’s advice about not marrying, avoiding dissent (he told converted slaves to remain slaves), and handling death makes best sense in the context of a community of followers that thought the end was near. People were expecting it any day, any second.
This end, as it turns out, did not happen, and so much of Jesus’ original apocalyptic message had to be toned down or “reinvented” as time went on. This is what we see in the evolution of the Gospels, from the earliest Mark–which is quite focused on the coming end of time–to John–which is much more developed theologically. Over time, followers had to rethink (rebrand) Christ’s message in order for it to fit with reality. The Good News was no longer the coming judgment and start of the reign of God–it was that Jesus died for the sins of the world. (Which is something I have always had a hard time with, since it makes God look like a second grader on the playground: fine, I’ll let you win, but you have to let me punch you in the head first.)
So does all this discredit Jesus? Not for me. I like him better now! Because it turns out, he was right. The end is near. Don’t you hear me screaming from the street corner in my tattered trench coat with my clapboard sign? The End Is Near! At least for you it is. And me too. I guarantee it. We are all about to die–in a five minutes or fifty years. Jesus was right. He was, in fact, the original member of The Church of Give Up and Die. He knew that reflecting on the eminent end of our lives is the best way to really start living. Awesome. Too bad he didn’t have a sweet blog.
Give Up and Die…you’ll be glad you did.
For more interesting stuff on the Bible, read my post Misquoting Jesus about how the Bible changed as it was passed down, or read my first article on the historical Jesus, or check out my post on our views of God. Or go here for a list of recent posts. Or go get Bart Ehrman’s great book Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
Plus, take my anonymous, unscientific, one-question survey on Jesus. I need more opinions.