Jesus seems to be coming up a lot in my life this week. Imagine that. With the release of Reza Aslan’s book on Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and subsequent, seemingly obligatory media-fueled drama that has ensued , the historicity and historical claims on Jesus had been on my mind throughout the weekend. Then a few days ago I shared a brief conversation with a friend about spiritual experience, and in the wake of the conversation the thoughts began to turn over in my head more tumultuously. Why are people so intrigued by this Jesus? It’s painfully clear that Jesus is a polarizing figure in our society, and to say that Jesus is a topic of popular discussion would be the understatement of over 200 centuries.
When we talk about Jesus, I think it’s important that at least the most basic of frameworks be agreed upon by all parties. After all, at least for Christians, what a person says and thinks about Jesus bears relevance for all of life. So, while some of these points may seem obvious, I think it’s worth hashing out. If for nothing else, just as a refresher to my mind.
1. People need to realize that we’re talking about a historical figure. He’s a real guy. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is (almost completely) undisputed. Anyone who pursues knowledge of the person of Jesus with an ounce of scholastic integrity will come to find he existed. Years of research and critical analysis bear the evidence that Jesus walked the earth from around 7-2 BC till AD 30-36. Additionally, scholars have come to a general consensus that there is significant evidence from both sympathetic (Christian) and unsympathetic (Roman and non-believing Jewish) first century sources to warrant the belief that his baptism by John the Baptizer, an event recorded in the canonical gospels, and his crucifixion outside of Jerusalem by Roman authorities are historical fact. So at the very least, when we speak about the person and work of Jesus, his baptism and crucifixion act as some very significant historical bookends to set in place our interpretation of who Jesus is.
2. We must realize that since Jesus was a historical figure, his person, his statements and vocation have a specific context; He was a Jew living in Palestine under Roman occupancy and authority. With this in mind, recall that first century Judaism would have been pregnant with Messianic expectation, and an overwhelming desire to be freed from oppression as the Messiah’s coming would mark the culmination of God’s rule, the vindication of God’s people and the destruction of God’s enemies (Rome, among others in this case). Now, as a Jewish teacher traveling with disciples in Palestine–now under Roman rule, Jesus’ crucifixion may have been the product of a number of things, but often crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and enemies of the state. Indeed, many religious rebels and military messiahs had been crucified under Rome’s boot. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to posit that since Jesus was crucified as a Jew by a Roman prefect, either he himself was making authority/kingship/Messiahship claims or someone else was making them on his behalf. If it is the case that someone was making those claims without Jesus’ consent, it seems interesting that Pilate would have crucified Jesus without investigating, or that Jesus would have remained silent on the matter when he was brought before the authorities. Now we’re wandering further into speculation, but it is of some importance in my mind.
What’s interesting about this element of Jesus’ life and ministry is that, being either self-identified as Messiah or postured as a messiah by others, following his crucifixion this Messianic claim resounds from the mouths of his followers even more clearly and audaciously than during his life. Ancient sources make it clear that the worship of Jesus by a growing population of Jews in the years following the crucifixion was identified by those outside the following. This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that there was no shortage of would-be Jewish messiahs prior to, during and following the first century. What’s true in every case, save Jesus’, is that when the leader died, the movement died with it. Any messiah who died under a pagan sword or on a pagan cross was no messiah at all. N.T. Wright argues this poignantly: ” I cannot as a historian see why anyone would have continued to belong to [Jesus’] movement and regard him as its messiah. There were several other messianic or quasi-messianic movements within a hundred years on either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by the authorities or by a rival group. If your messiah is killed, naturally you conclude that he was not the messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family. (Note, however, that nobody ever said James, the brother of Jesus, was the messiah.) Such groups did not suffer from that blessed twentieth-century disease of cognitive dissonance. In particular, they did not go around saying that their messiah had been raised from the dead” (“The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology”).
3. ( This specifically has bearing on pop-cultural awareness of Jesus) If you are going to make the statement that Jesus was/is “a good teacher”, “a moral leader”, “an inspirational figure”, “a role model”, etc., you should think long and hard about why you are saying such things, and where you draw your knowledge to come to such conclusions. In order to make such statements, one must decide what he or she believes about Scripture. Is Scripture historically reliable? Is it truthful? Because without looking to the gospels, one has no reason to make any claims regarding the character and moral nature of this man Jesus. This is another topic for another day, but suffices to say, these claims, apart from drawing from the Jesus of the gospels, have no basis in reality. It would be like saying “I look to Henry VIII for all my ideas on breakdancing.” It makes no historical sense. Notice, I say apart from drawing from the Jesus of the gospels. If you believe the gospels give a reliable, cogent, historical portrait of Jesus, then you may make the above statements (about Jesus, not Henry VIII) with a clear conscience and rational justification; however, such a portrait of Jesus requires that you say much more than that. The Jesus of the gospels does make kingship and Messiahship claims, indeed divine claims, and the same gospels that portray Jesus’ concern for the poor and helpless, his love of children and the marginalized, also portray Jesus’ indignation over sinfulness, the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, his exclusive rights to rule over the nations, and his claim to be YHWH, Israel’s God.
If you do not believe that the gospels offer up a reliable historical account, then to model your life after Jesus’ life and ministry, to admire his teachings, are nothing more than wishful optimism drawn from ancient myth. I can model my life after Jay Gatsby, Frodo, or any number of fictional characters, and I can really admire Winnie the Pooh’s teaching on friendship, and it may be of marginal or significant value; who knows? But it’s not grounded in reality. Additionally, if you are only looking to Jesus as a teacher of morality and inspiration, honestly you may be better off looking elsewhere. C.S. Lewis put it very well, I think.
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”