Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Thousand Faces of Christ: On the latest revisionist Jesus

Several years ago I was reading a book of quotations and came across a quote from Jesus, the attribution read, "Jesus, (if you can believe Luke)." Just for fun, I looked up a quote by Socrates. In that case the attribution simply read, "Socrates." It didn't say "Socrates (if you can believe Plato)."

The problem, of course, is that the historical standard employed by critics of the Bible is completely different from the standard they employ with any other book. When it comes to the gospel accounts, we all of a sudden want to abandon the criteria by which we judge the historicity of every other text in favor of a standard we don't apply to anything else.

In other words, the problem is not that the Biblical documents don't meet up to the regular documentary criteria (they do that just fine). The problem is that we want to judge them by a higher standard than anything else.

We see this just about every Easter, when Time Magazine or Newsweek (when there was one) features a cover article on "the historical Jesus" or "the real Jesus" or "Who was Jesus?" or "Who was the real historical Jesus" or countless other iterations of the same theme.

And what better way to determine whether Jesus existed than to go out and interview people who don't believe he did? Or those who think he did, but have their own pet theory about who he was--and whose theories pretty much contradict each other?

But scholars who think he did and think he was pretty much like the historical documents say he was sit by their university office phones like the old Maytag repairman: They never get a call.

Now there is a book out which does pretty much the same thing, this one by Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Russ Douthat also takes note of the fact that Aslan's theory (and approach) is not exactly unprecedented:
The fact that Aslan’s take on Jesus is not original doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But it has the same problem that bedevils most of his competitors in the “real Jesus” industry. In the quest to make Jesus more comprehensible, it makes Christianity’s origins more mysterious. 
Part of the lure of the New Testament is the complexity of its central character — the mix of gentleness and zeal, strident moralism and extraordinary compassion, the down-to-earth and the supernatural. 
Most “real Jesus” efforts, though, assume that these complexities are accretions, to be whittled away to reach the historical core. Thus instead of a Jesus who contains multitudes, we get Jesus the nationalist or Jesus the apocalyptic prophet or Jesus the sage or Jesus the philosopher and so on down the list. 
There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.
It's so much easier to tame Christianity than deal with what it actually says.

But there is a better response to the constant stream of multitudinous and inconsistent Christs we are always being told existed instead of the one presented by the actual evidence (the New Testament) and it comes from G. K. Chesterton:
Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance. Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.
Which sort of goes back to something Hillaire Belloc once said: "Truth is one and error multiple."


KyCobb said...

"There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith."

Well Muhammad and Buddha also inspired global faiths. Memes evolve, much faster than genes do, and the ones which are most successful in adapting to human minds spread.

Martin Cothran said...


You're right about that. But I think your missing Douthat's point: that it would require something different from Aslan's historical Christ to account for the inspiration that fired the Christian movement. That would equally apply to Muhammad and Buddha. They may have been wrong, but they were not boring.