I have been re-reading NT Wright’s chapter on the “The Surprise of Resurrection” in Jesus: the final days, where he corrects some doubtful christian ideas about the resurrection, and offers reasons why we should regard the gospel accounts as basically historical.
Jesus is such an important and admired character in world history and western culture that everyone seems to want to claim him for their tribe. So there are many different versions of Jesus for us to believe in.
Shopping mall Jesus
This is the most obvious Jesus, and the easiest to see through. Two months before Christmas, supermarkets and shopping malls began stocking Christmas goods and playing the infernal muzak Christmas carols, and it isn’t long before nativity scenes begin to appear. A cute baby, a beautiful madonna mother who can’t find a room at the inn, lots of fluffy animals and a cast of rich kings and poor shepherds – what’s not to like?
This Jesus wouldn’t say anything against the commercialisation of his fake birthday, and he is apparently happy to help move product off shelves and maximise end-of-year profits.
Most of us buy into this monetary worship by spending up big buying presents which are generally in excess of needs, but while we like the story, we know the real story in the gospels has nothing to do with profit. This Jesus is only a faint shadow of the real person.
Cosmic sacred Jesus
The carpenter Jesus of the gospels becomes in Revelation a cosmic Jesus to be worshiped. This Jesus is perhaps best “seen” in grand Medieval cathedrals, with their soaring spires emphasising how far God is above us mere mortals. Inside, the same point is made with the cathedral clearly divided into “God’s end”, where only the priests can minister, and the people’s end.
This Jesus has risen far above his humble earthly beginnings among farm animals, and is now so distant that many Catholics seem to think that his mother is more likely to hear them, and some Protestant televangelists and megachurch pastors seem to think he isn’t watching their sleazy and materialistic behaviour.
This Jesus certainly reflects some important Biblical teachings, but he’s a long way from the Jesus of the gospels.
Cosmic hippy Jesus aka progressive Jesus
Cosmic hippy Jesus used to be popular, and he still puts in an appearance sometimes today in a new guise as progressive Jesus. This Jesus is all about love, though not always the sort of love described in the Bible; he accepts everyone and condemns no-one. He’s definitely left wing politically, caring for all the alienated and repressed people, such as refugees, the LGBTQI community, oppressed indigenous communities and victims of war and violence. He is much admired by people who are spiritual but not religious. In fact, he never enters a modern western church, and if he did, they wouldn’t recognise him.
The new progressive Jesus is not as extreme as cosmic hippy Jesus, and built on a better understanding of the New Testament. But he still definitely emphasises love and acceptance over judgment.
I have a lot of affection for this Jesus. I share a lot of his values, including most of the ones I’ve just mentioned. And this Jesus can be found in the pages of the gospels. Sort of. But the Jesus of the gospels did judge and criticise, and his love was often a tougher love than cosmic hippy Jesus ever exhibits.
Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus
This Jesus is almost the opposite of cosmic hippy Jesus. Sure he loves everyone, but he sends many of them to hell. Yes he loves everyone, but good doctrine matters, and he’s not going to accept any sloppy doctrinal thinking.
This Jesus came for just one thing – to die on the cross to divert God’s righteous wrath from our sinful rebellious selves onto himself, and you might well wonder what the rest of his life was all about – why did he bother with all that teaching about the kingdom of God? He’s a stern and serious Jesus and you’d better get on the right side of him if you want to go to heaven. And it would probably help if you were politically conservative and ignored all that historical Jesus talk against materialism and about non-violence and caring for the poor.
Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus is closer to the Jesus of Paul than to the historical Jesus of the gospels. Somehow, this Jesus seems true up to a point, but very truncated and missing so much.
Jesus the apocalyptic prophet
This Jesus is the one believed by many New Testament scholars. He’s based on historical study and is right at home in first century Jewish religion and culture. He fanned the hopes of many repressed Jews that God was finally going to remove the yoke of the hated Romans and bring in his kingdom on earth. And of course this meant the king would be a Jew and rule in Jerusalem, and the Jews would be top nation.
This Jesus envisaged this massive reversal of fortunes happening very soon, within the lifetime of his followers. But it didn’t happen – he failed – and his followers had to invent a new story of atoning death, resurrection and a spiritual kingdom to make sense of this failure.
This Jesus is built on historical facts and makes sense of much of the gospels, but it misses some key gospel hints and is built on naturalistic assumptions – understandable for secular historians but surely an unsafe basis for understanding someone like Jesus. When a man establishes a religious community that goes on to cover a third of the world, you’d want to think twice before you call him a failure – perhaps it is your understanding that has failed.
Will the real Jesus please stand up!
Which of these, if any, is the “real” Jesus?
I want to suggest that all of them contain some truth, but all miss some very important things.
I want to suggest we need to go back to the historical Jesus and understand why so many scholars see him as an apocalyptic prophet, and to find that there is good reason to think he was all that … and much more.
I suggest we all need to see whether the Jesus we worship, or reject, is consistent with the historical Jesus of the gospels, or lacks that fundamental foundation.
Next post I’ll suggest some things we should learn from the scholars, and a few places where we can legitimately and truthfully go beyond their somewhat limited and careful picture of Jesus. And learn why we should be wary of fully embracing any of the pictures of Jesus I’ve outlined here. And hopefully also see a few ways we can each have a more accurate picture of who Jesus is, and can be for us today.
May you ponder these things and grow in understanding this Christmas, so that we may all “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly”.
Graphic: Wallpaper cave
You can find a lot of different views on the internet about the accuracy of Old Testament history and how archaeology does, or doesn’t, support the Old Testament accounts. Minimalist historians, and internet sceptics, will tell you it’s almost all invented myth, while maximalist historians and christian apologists will tell you that archaeology supports the truth of the entire Bible.
How does an honest seeker after the truth find a way between the conflicting extremes to a fair understanding?
The best way, it seems to me, is to read an expert who is as unbiased as possible, with a slight leaning towards the sceptical. That way, I can be reasonably confident that anything the expert tells me is likely to be accurate, and maybe a little more besides.
So it was with these expectations that I purchased and read William Dever’s Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. And it lived up to my hopes.
Like many countries colonised by European nations, Australia has a sorry two century history of poor treatment of our indigenous peoples, resulting in a significant reduction in their numbers and the quality of their lives. But they have survived, their numbers are building again, and many indigenous leaders are become more forthright in their pleas for greater recognition.
NAIDOC week, which is finishing as I write this (I wrote this Sunday night but only posted it Wednesday morning), has been set up as a celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It has been, in my view, a resounding success.
I didn’t grow up in a christian family, but I was sent to Sunday School from when I was young. And so I learnt to believe that the Bible was true.
It was only later, in my late teens, that I began to discover some anomalies in the Bible that didn’t fit what I had been taught.
I didn’t continue to believe what I was taught, despite the problems, as many people do. And I didn’t decide that if the Bible isn’t what I thought it was, it couldn’t be true at all, and so give up my faith faith, as others do.
Instead I grappled with the anomalies and often ended up modifying my understanding of the Bible and of God.
I want to share my journey with one such anomaly that has changed some of how I think about the Bible and about the christian faith.
Right from the earliest days, there have always been disagreements within the christian community. Some are resolved, but some lead to major splits, new denominations or new doctrinal positions.
I have the feeling that a major, and probably irreversible, divergence is brewing in the western Protestant church, between those we may label “evangelical” and those we may label “progressive”.
Both evangelicals and progressives generally hold to the core truths of christianity as expressed in the Apostles Creed – the trinity of God the father and creator; Jesus the incarnate son, teacher, healer, dying saviour and resurrected Lord; and the Holy Spirit living within each believer. But there are some distinctives of these two viewpoints which I think will continue to lead to divergence and separation.
The facts about Jesus are clearly stated in the gospels, and they don’t change, but people have so many different understandings of him. The Catholic Jesus or Orthodox Jesus is not the same as the evangelical Protestant Jesus, or the Jesus of liberal Protestant theologians.
I think there is probably some truth in all portraits, including that Jesus was a prophet, and a social and religious radical. Nothing shows this more than his treatment of women and social outcasts.
As Simon the Pharisee discovered when he invited Jesus to a banquet and discussion …..
Last night we attended a service of lament and support for indigenous christians who cannot celebrate Australia Day with the rest of the country. The service highlighted issues that I think we all wish weren’t there, or would go away.
But maybe we all have some helpful lessons to learn.
I have learnt so much that has helped me make better sense of the gospels and of my faith (although I am certainly not claiming to be like Maria in the Counting Crows song, Round Here, who says she is “close to understanding Jesus”!)
Let me tell you why I am so enthused.