I’ve posted a fair bit on this blog about how others view Jesus. I’ve talked about the views of scholars, theologians and interested skeptics. But I’ve never really taken the time to unpack and explain exactly what I think of it all and what conclusions I’ve come to (tentative conclusions of course, but also ones based on lengthy study and serious reflection).
“Who is Jesus to me?” While I don’t feel required to answer such a question, I think it may be helpful to lay out my views on this topic. Part of my reason for doing so is to further debunk the idea that there are only 2 or 3 possible ways to view Jesus. My view doesn’t fit neatly into the famous “trilemma” proposed by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis who said that we must accept Jesus as either a liar, a lunatic, or as lord (that is, as co-equal with God, the second person of the Trinity). Even though my view doesn’t fit into that neat little formula, I hope that it will provide a window into how many atheists and ex-Christians view Jesus. While many will happily declare that Jesus was simply a charlatan or severely mentally disturbed, there are plenty of non-believers who don’t subscribe to those views.
So, with that intro out-of-the-way, here are my personal conclusions about the man Jesus of Nazareth:
- 1st Century Jew
- Galilean Preacher/Teacher
- Definitely not a “Hellenized” Jew, but probably a Pharisee or a member of a similar “conservative” sect (scholars advise us that the Pharisees didn’t interpret the Law strictly literally and the gospel tradition of them being strict legalists is not correct either…they allowed for significant interpretation of the Old Testament and we see this in the ministry of Jesus as well. I think there are good reasons for believing that Jesus either was a Pharisee or belonged to a sect that split off from them. It’s hard to say for sure though, given the sources we have.)
- Travelled in a relatively small geographic area (Unlike Paul, Peter and the other founding apostles, Jesus never left Palestine).
- Had a very short ministry (1-3 years at most going by the accounts in the gospels).
- I don’t believe Jesus called himself God or claimed to be equal with God. This is in alignment with the majority view of critical scholars. The view that Jesus was a Divine Being from before Creation is expressed only in John, which scholars consider to be the latest gospel written. The Gospel of John (GoJ) shows us a very different Jesus than what we see in the Synoptics. I don’t believe Jesus ever said “I and the Father are One” or indeed most of the sayings and long speeches attributed to him in the GoJ (there may be some authentic shorter sayings in the gospel). I also don’t believe that Jesus had a secret meeting with Nicodemus where he explained how to achieve eternal life (I view that section, like several others in John, as a literary invention of the author). The GoJ clearly expresses a more exalted and transcendent view of Jesus than the Synoptic gospels do.
- The Synoptic gospels generally view Jesus as a Redeemer and as being (in various ways, dependent on the writer) somehow “adopted” or “fathered” by God. But, none of the Synoptic gospels views Jesus Christ as a pre-existent divine being. The writers likely belonged to Christian communities where Christ was viewed as an exalted, divine being, but as we do not see evidence of an incarnation theology in them, we must assume this was not central to the theology of their specific communities. Early Christian communities held a variety of views about Jesus and in what ways he was divine (being a “divine being” in the ancient Jewish world did not necessarily mean being equal to or somehow equivalent to the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh and the Greek world also had a broad range of meaning for the concept of divinity).
- Paul rarely cites any sayings of Jesus or discusses Jesus’ earthly life in any detail. I view Paul’s exalted views of Jesus as rooted in his own mystical strain of early Christianity. Paul’s primary “knowledge” about Jesus does not appear to be biographical traditions, but rather supernatural revelation. Even in Paul’s day it was clear that there were competing “apostles” and not just one take on who/what Jesus was. Paul refers to himself as an apostle even while admitting he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and teachings. Thus, when Paul expresses an exalted Christology (viewing Jesus as a kind of divine being who existed with God the Father before coming to Earth as a man) we cannot simply assume that this is somehow because Jesus must have taught that himself. Rather, it seems more plausible (from the perspective of critical, secular history) to see Paul’s view also as an adaptation, one of several that developed after the early Christians came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.
- I view the Gospel of Mark as our most reliable version of Jesus’ life. Still, I think it has issues. And I don’t think John Mark, the companion of Peter, had any role in writing it. Rather it appears to have been written by an anonymous author living far from Palestine (the author makes several major mistakes about Palestinian geography which even conservative scholars often acknowledge). But the author probably does preserve something of an informed oral tradition about who Jesus was and even some of the sayings he was known for. There wasn’t a single oral tradition as there was no central authority controlling the message about Jesus in the very early years of Christianity. Mark crafts a plausible (but certainly not perfect) narrative around some of Jesus’ well-known sayings that were doubtless circulating at the time. Scholars inform us that some sayings seem to “fit” with the type of Aramaic that Jesus would have spoken. Some sayings could have been invented by Mark, but I think it more likely that if Mark did invent anything it would have been filling in the gaps of some of the narrative (especially related to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion).
- The Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is intent on preaching the Kingdom of God. He also has a lot to say about a coming “Son of Man.” Usually the sayings about this Son of Man are spoken as though Jesus is talking about someone other than himself. It is my view that Jesus did not view himself as the Son of Man (though proving that would probably be impossible as we don’t have more direct access to Jesus’ mind and even his sayings come to us 3rd, 4th, 5th hand or more through oral transmission). I think that Mark (whoever he was) viewed Jesus as the Son of Man, but I think that Mark also tried hard to preserve most of the sayings as he received them.
- Jesus likely did speak in parables about the coming kingdom. We find such parables in all of our early sources for Jesus. The parables in Mark mostly focus on accepting the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand and therefore people need to repent of their sins. In contrast to GoJ, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark does not indicate that belief in the “Son of God” or in himself is necessary for people to be in right relationship with God. Also, the emphasis on the coming Kingdom shows that Jesus had an apocalyptic vision. He saw this Kingdom as an event soon to happen, interrupting the normal events of history (and possibly the whole cosmos) in a major way. He did not view the Kingdom of God as some abstract analogy of the church (which didn’t exist in Jesus’ lifetime) or as “what happens when you die.” Both those views were developed by later gospel writers, partially as a response to the delay in the occurrence of the apocalyptic events (see Mark 13) that Jesus preached would occur.
- I don’t presume that Jesus was a charlatan or a liar. He certainly could have been, but so could any religious leader at the time or into our present day. Most religious teachers that I know of, even the more ecstatic ones who preach a judgment soon to come, seem very sincere to me. Also, I don’t think most people have the temperament needed to lie continuously. So, yes, Jesus could have been a lying charlatan just trying to make a buck or just eager to lord some meager spiritual authority over others…but I think it far more likely that he really did believe that the Kingdom of God and the associated apocalyptic events really were at hand. I think the early Christians who adapted and passed along this message were also quite sincere. I think the idea that Jesus was a charlatan is rooted more in our modern cynicism towards supernatural events in general (a cynicism even shared by most conservative Christians) rather than in an honest look at his historical circumstances. The times he lived in were ripe with superstition. He wasn’t the only prophet of doom in town. If he was some sort of “healer” then he also wouldn’t have been the only healer known at that time.
- Whether Jesus performed many acts of healing is unclear to me (or “apparent healings” as a skeptic like myself would say since it’s possible to fool oneself or others into believing an ailment has been cured when in reality it is just a temporary psychological effect). The healings in the gospel are generally of a striking and miraculous nature and don’t seem to match up with what we see from contemporary charlatan healers today like Benny Hinn. Jesus doesn’t just cure upset stomach, fever, and sore backs, but debilitating diseases such as blindness, lameness, deafness and (in later gospels) even death. These would not be the works of a charlatan but of a truly gifted individual…if they could be reliable confirmed as true reports. And the inability to properly confirm these extraordinary reports and put them above the miracle claims of other religious figures (past and present) is exactly the problem. I think most of the healings in the gospels can now be chalked up to legendary embellishment after the fact. Some of that embellishment may well have happened during Jesus’ lifetime, but I suspect that most of it occurred as stories about Jesus were being orally transmitted after his death. People would be eager to latch onto the idea that their spiritual savior had literally rescued people not just during his death and resurrection, but also during his lifetime. Such miracle stories would vindicate their view that Jesus was on a mission to save the frail and sickly…not just in the coming Kingdom of God or in some distant afterlife, but also when he walked among us.
The “Mystical Jesus” and the “Historical Jesus”
To me, Jesus wasn’t a “raving lunatic” or a charlatan, or God Incarnate. He was none of those things, because I honestly believe the evidence points to him being simply misguided. He was human and like many of us prone to error. I don’t view simple religious fervor as being a form of mental illness (and to claim that Jesus was so fervent that it must have been a form of mental illness or narcissism is a very tough claim I haven’t seen anyone back up). Humans are prone to bias and prone to making errors in judgement. In my view, Jesus didn’t claim anything wildly out-of-bounds of Jewish orthodoxy at the time. He probably wasn’t incredibly popular during his own lifetime, despite the claims in the gospels that he drew massive crowds (if this was really the case I think we’d have more sources and especially more diverse sources for his life than a handful of hearsay accounts made decades later, exclusively by followers of a religious movement that saw him as humankind’s savior…it’s also hard to square the narrative of his widespread popularity with his later violent “betrayal” by the Jewish people during Passover). In all likelihood he had a small core group of followers, including men and women, who supported him and helped him to spread his message of the Kingdom. These original followers were all Jewish and the texts themselves (excepting the Gospel of John) indicate that during Jesus’ lifetime his followers didn’t view him as some sort of deity or superhuman being. At best they viewed him as an earthly prophet carrying on in the tradition of Old Testament figures such as Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Malachi and others who were inspired by God but who were also clearly mortal men. The most exalted ideas about Jesus and his role in the world were likely a response to the belief that Jesus was raised by God. That belief that Jesus was raised by God may not have been originally tied into the idea of a sustained physical appearance such as we see described at the end of Matthew, Luke and John (tellingly, Mark’s gospel does not state that there was a physical appearance of the resurrected Jesus, merely that the tomb was empty and the women were told to tell the others). This belief in a risen Jesus could have simply been an ecstatic vision or an inspired dream experienced by several of his early followers. I view it as ultimately immaterial whether or not there was in fact an empty tomb or whether that element was an embellishment by later storytellers (crucified criminals usually didn’t get nice burials because desecration of the corpse was considered part of the punishment). Maybe there was some sort of “empty tomb” or maybe not, but in either case an empty grave wouldn’t normally prove or suggest (to an unbiased person at least) that this meant the corpse was out walking around. And also on this note, I don’t view Paul’s claim that there were “five-hundred” witnesses to the Resurrection as reliable. If you look up that passage, you’ll see it doesn’t make it clear what type of experience those people may have had; unfortunately we just have Paul’s word for it too and no other confirmation either first or secondhand of these supposed witnesses.
For myself, I see most of the “amazing” claims that people make about Jesus now as stemming from the fervency of his early followers and those who were converted to Christianity after the death of Jesus. I do not believe the most amazing claims about Jesus were ever spoken by Jesus during his lifetime. There is a stark demarcation between the “historical Jesus” that we can attempt to reconstruct from the gospels and the “mystical Jesus” who dominates the gospel narratives and who we see also adored in Paul’s letters. I simply don’t see them as the same person.
Being asked to hold myself accountable to what the mystical Jesus demands of me makes no sense to me personally. I have no relation to that person and I view him as being unreal. The mystical Jesus is a sincerely created but ultimately false representation. A religious ideal and not a man. But the historical Jesus is a being I can understand, at least in part. The historical Jesus demands that I repent of selfishness and hard-heartedness, and that I turn to worship the true God of Abraham. The historical Jesus has no interest in being worshipped or adored or being “invited into my heart.” He would have recoiled at such blasphemy. He simply wants to send out a warning that God’s justice is coming soon and that now is the time to get on the right side of history. Of course, this person ended up being dead wrong. The apocalypse didn’t come soon. Nearly 2000 years later, The Old Testament prophecies remain unfulfilled. The establishment of the promised Kingdom didn’t occur during the lifetime of his disciples as he apparently promised. This, in my view, doesn’t make Jesus a “false prophet.” I’ll leave that terminology to the religious followers who believe that there actually are “true prophets” with divine authority. In my view, this mistake simply makes him human. Jesus was a human who lived and died in about 30 years. He preached a somewhat unique, but not radically different, form of ancient Judaism. Not surprisingly, he gathered Jewish followers. Some of those followers came to believe that he had been raised up and exalted after his crucifixion. Those immediate followers gathered converts to their new belief, first from within Judaism but soon spreading throughout the gentile world of the Mediterranean. After gaining many gentile followers the religion took on new aspects while still retaining the core belief that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent by the Jewish God and raised by God after his death. Thus, Christianity was born and it eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Millenia later, the mystical Jesus still matters to billions of people in the world. They long for a savior. They long for someone to connect them with the divine and offer them eternal rewards and protection. For myself, I’m content with the historical Jesus: a simple, humble human who devoted several years of his life to a cause that he believed in and which ultimately led to his demise. The best that I can do to honor such a person is to sincerely devote my time and talent to the causes and ideals that I believe in, even if I encounter adversity and even if I do not receive great recognition in my own lifetime. Like him, I hope for a better world.
Related posts: What is History?, Robert Price on Skepticism and Historical Method, Liar, Lunatic, Lord or Legend?, Thy Kingdom Come, Review of Jesus Before the Gospels, Comments on ‘Ecce Homo!’ by Baron d’Holbach