I am not aware of a time since Jesus was executed by Rome that the world lacked a significant number of people trying to know all that could be known about Jesus. As oral tradition about this remarkable man was put into writings that were eventually designated as scripture, there were those–and there are plenty of them around still today–who say that everything we need to know about Jesus is contained in a handful of books, notably the four Gospels, that have been baptized as Christian scripture; these people are not interested in searches for other sources that might give hints, at least hints, of other words Jesus may have spoken and/or other deeds Jesus may have done. The Bible for them is the final story, as much of his story as anyone needs to or will ever need to know.
Others of us would be thrilled if anything new showed up in writing or as an archaeological artifact that as much as hinted, something blatant would be better, at one more saying from Jesus or at a miraculously preserved piece of wood, a part of something Carpenter Jesus built and uncharacteristically, we assume, scribbled his name on to make it known to others who saw the piece that there was a very fine carpenter in town who could do the same kind of top notch work for them, a little advertising if you will.
I have no sense of what the life of a first century Jewish carpenter was like except for a couple of scenes in the film version of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ. Probably entirely fabricated in service to the fictional plot, nonetheless, I will never forget the portrayal of Carpenter Jesus in that film. Ironically, he was under contract to make crosses for the Romans, and in the most macabre of turns the cross on which he was crucified might well have been one that he had constructed.
A number of Christians around the world were incensed at the discovery made under a present-day Jerusalem apartment building about 1980, but only made known to the world a few years ago. The archaeological team observed intensely by investigative journalist, Simcha Jacobovici, and financially underwritten by mega successful movie producer, James Cameron, believed it found the Jesus family burial chamber. There were several small limestone chests, ossuaries, containing bone dust and fragments. Families with sufficient income or inheritance had tombs in which their loved ones would be buried; these tombs would belong to a larger family for generations. A family had a tomb where the remains of each deceased loved one would be placed. In time, when nothing but bones remained, the bones would be placed in one of these ossuaries and then transferred to a chamber where a number of these would be kept permanently, making room for other present-tense entombments. The name of the person whose bones had been placed in a particular limestone chest would be written on it at the time it was placed in the burial chamber.
Jewish religious and antiquities authorities forced Cameron and company to put the ossuaries back exactly as they had found them and to seal the burial chamber, now called the Talpiot Tomb, fairly rapidly out of respect for the remains themselves, for the descendants of those buried there, and for the people living in the apartment complex built directly on top of the now-underground chamber. Before calling the actual handling of the artifacts quits, and naturally Cameron had massive film footage made of every second of observation and investigation, names on ossuaries were noted. While skeptics of faith said the names discovered were very common names in the time of Jesus, the carbon dating associating the limestone with the era in which Jesus lived was a pertinent fact, as was the DNA testing of bone fragments establishing biological ties among four of the five persons buried there, a wife being biologically connected only to the remains of her son, and the particular collection of names found on five of the ten ossuaries this much of a coincidence? Joseph, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Judah Son of Jesus, and Jesus. If the decaying bones of Jesus were found, they harpooned all traditional perspectives on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Biblicists naturally said that scripture forbade the possibility that any such discovery could have been made, at least of bones of Jesus. The Bible describes a bodily resurrection just as it describes the earth as a big flat island kept from sinking into the seas by huge support columns. This method of faith first and science last if at all gets us right back, seriously, to the attitudes of the people who lived in the Dark Ages before a few remarkable Renaissance scientists began to demonstrate that science can precede faith and even inform faith. It seems odd to me that people who claim the preeminence of personal experience with the divine would fight so hard to prove as historic one long-standing interpretation of an obscure story nicknamed “The Ascension of Jesus,” a biblical tradition that would call the conclusions of Cameron’s team into question. Yet, nothing that Cameron’s experts found or said could have any bearing on experiences people of faith claim to have had with God or with the risen Jesus himself.
When I talk about searching to know more about Jesus, I can assure you that vast numbers of people on the inside of Christianity don’t want Cameron or any of his counterparts to fund excavations that lead to these kinds of discoveries. My very first academic course in the discipline of Religion was titled “Jesus,” the masterful professor, Dr. Bill Blevins, at Carson-Newman College, said on the first day of class–the first time the course had been taught, by the way–that his primary goal in the course was to help us separate the Jesus of history from the stained glass Jesus who, sadly, is the only Jesus that many people ever know about.
Other theologians have talked about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The Christ of faith, though, no matter how glorious he sounds is the creation of theologians and hopeful believers. Whatever he is, he doesn’t reside in reality, but in the ideas and hopes of those who tried to make theological sense of Jesus after his death.
The person who matters is the Jesus of history, our ancestor, a real flesh and blood being, about whom we know, so far, thirty-three day’s worth of information, and even those are not whole days. We have knowledge of parts of thirty-three days of a life that spanned approximately thirty-three years. With no more than that to go on, many of us, once introduced to his teachings about God and life, have never been able to let him go, and we never will.
In most places around the world today, Jesus would hardly need an introduction; he is known and respected by all three brands of monotheism and by many others also. We might well wish that all who know of him knew more about the few limited facts we have in hand than about the Jesus distorted by self-serving preachers and would-be theologians who act as if they can get people into heaven by manipulating them to embrace the Christ created for them by these preachers and “theologians” who seem to think that they are on a commission arrangement with God–one heavenly gold coin in glory for every person they can coerce into rationally embracing the Christ they have created for their hearers.
There was a day when Jesus wasn’t known much of any place unless the place had a nickname like “Podunk.” Enter John the Baptist whose job it was to introduce Jesus to seekers in his day and by extension to introduce Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry to those in every generation who look back to the real Jesus of history.
John was Jesus’ cousin, and they were in the same line of religious work. Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies that lived by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness. Therefore, John joined an escapist party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs. His shelter was carved out of a cave. His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies: sun-dried locusts and fresh out of the hive wild honey.
Jesus, a little younger than John and focussed on secular work and not ministry, became inspired by his cousin’s utter devotion to God and went out into the wilderness to study with him. He became one of John’ s disciples though he did not elect to join with the Essenes and live out there in the Qumran Community.
Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John had done. John had left big city pressures and corruption; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John lived. Jesus himself had followed this pattern.
In any case, as I said a moment ago, the time came for his teacher, John, to push him out of the nest; ironically, though, his path was the opposite of John’s. Instead of renouncing city life for the wilderness, Jesus left the wilderness and went back into the urban fray. Though many people gladly would have come out into the wilderness to hear Jesus preach, he came to them right where they were, and most of them were in cities. Facing both political antagonism and religious condemnation, that is where he stayed until the end when high atop a hill overlooking big city corruption, this man devoted to goodness and love alone was unjustly executed by utterly uncaring occupation forces who thought they’d silenced Jesus, but that has never yet happened. One-third of the people in the world today, 3-plus billion, call themselves Christians or followers of Jesus. Oddly told birth and death stories, ignored by most writers of Christian scripture, a handful of stories about what he may have said or done, and the world was changed by people dared to live the way he did.
If I know only one theological fact–namely that God loves all people unconditionally as Jesus preached the gospel; and if I embrace only one ethical norm–namely to live out God’s love that I’ve experienced in practical ways, compelling me to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to visit the sick and incarcerated and, otherwise, to give hope to the hopeless, then I am a bone fide follower of Jesus. I will increasingly be strongly connected to Jesus in spirit every time I risk living as he lived. I’m not looking for any greater reward than to know in my depths that I’m living something like the way the person lived who became the window through which I could see the reality of a divine love and the inescapable call to emulate it to the best of my limited capabilities.
There was a time when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his cousin, John the Baptizer. Speaking to small collection of Jewish uppities who had come to hear John and having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism in order to be baptized in the Jordan River, and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John preached. They realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings. They knew in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and proclaimed themselves better than others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were, and in their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.
These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God, just a few minutes before Pharisees and Sadducees, must have said to John, “We leave you now teacher for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.”
John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents! I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” John believed that Jesus got it even more profoundly then he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John, but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave. It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes. Thus, the adult Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus was introduced to the world.
One of the remarkable Jesus scholars of our time is Marcus Borg. Professor Borg has recently retired from the University of Oregon where he was, for years, Professor of Religious Studies. Several of his books have sold millions of copies; the first one that caught my eye was Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Many of us were introduced to Jesus as some theologian’s or religious group’s carefully concocted Christ of faith. We thought we knew Jesus, but we didn’t. Until we know the Jesus of history, as limited as the information may be, we do not know Jesus at all, and to be introduced to the Jesus of history after knowing him only as someone’s Christ of faith, is like meeting him again for the first time.
Let me give you one simple, very simple, example that is appropriate to the season we’re approaching. Baby Jesus did cry. His swaddling clothes had two trap doors that made rewrapping him several times a day unnecessary. Gorgeous art work aside, baby Jesus had no halo ruminating around his cute little Jewish head. A reasonable argument can be made for calling the adult Jesus “Lord,” which meant master as in master teacher, but there was no such thing as any “little Lord Jesus.” Those may be beautiful hymnic, poetic, symbolic words, but they are not soundly theological words and are definitely not the words of an objective historian.
A significant number of people in the Christian movement are drawn to Jesus today not because of the claims that he grew up and matured as illusion because underneath the human veneer was God in disguise, but rather because he grew up as one of us, a human being struggling through significant human challenges but managing, despite all of those, to keep his eyes focused on better ways and his heart open to love, which was and which is God.
Religion scholar, Claudia Setzer, writing for the extensive PBS study, “From Jesus to Christ,” guides us to more understanding on this subject:
“Whereas some scholars in the past may have talked about the Jewish background of the New Testament as if it were a mere backdrop to Christianity, or talked about ‘late Judaism’ as if Judaism, on its last legs in the first century, was superseded by Christianity, no serious New Testament researcher today speaks of ‘the Jesus movement’ or Jesus himself as outside the orbit of first-century Judaism….Further, we have a more nuanced view of the variety of Judaisms in the first century and where Jesus and his followers might have fit in….The current scholars draw upon many disciplines, borrowing anthropological and sociological methods. For example, John Dominic Crossan relies on some of the insights of anthropology to illumine agrarian peasant Mediterranean society, Richard Horsley and others use sociological data to understand Jesus as a radical political figure responding to economic and political persecution. A number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged….Burton Mack describes Jesus as a Jewish Cynic, a popular sage who shocked people into understanding with his sharp and disturbing sayings. Like Marcus Borg, he sees Jesus as focused on the present state of the world, a dispenser of timeless truths. Crossan pictures him as a preacher of radical egalitarianism, addressing a peasant society suffering in political and economic straits, offering a message of healing: ‘You are healed healers, so take the kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it.’”
Phillips Brooks was Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church before becoming Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts. Regarded, hands down, as one of the greatest preachers in this country in the late 1800’s, Brooks whom you may know as the writer of the words to the calming Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” preached these words, shocking to his first hearers and shocking to many yet today:
“In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical….His religion has so long been identified with conservatism…that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote to Ezra Styles in 1790:
“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see, but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes.”
One way to think about why Jesus is still appealing to a huge number of people around the world today is to take note of the people and kinds of people who found him appealing in his own day. I begin with a widely known and widely respected religious leader of the day, a key figure in the religion of which Jesus was a part his whole life and yet the religion that he, in love, thought needed to be upgraded for the well being of people who sought to know God through that religion. Nicodemus was so publicly, popularly, and powerfully tied into Judaism’s hierarchy during Jesus’ lifetime that there was no way, really, he could dare take any chances whatsoever of being seen with Jesus or known to associate with Jesus. Nicodemus would lose all credibility in his professional position, and his clout, which he thoroughly enjoyed, would be down the tubes. Even though he comes by night, which is still a HUGE RISK for him, he comes; he is a person with much to lose by associating with Jesus, but eventually the power of Jesus’ message, trickling back to him in bits and pieces through busybodies and spies hired to keep an eye on Jesus, began to mean more to Nicodemus than gossip or intelligence about a potential trouble maker.
Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night and says, “I’ve been a sincerely religious person all my life. I don’t live this stuff for the fun of it; I live it because I’ve believed all these years that our holy laws will get me where I need to be with God, but when I hear the snippets of your sermons that float back to me, you, my fellow Jew, say that giving up on laws as the way to God and giving in to the reality of relationship as the way to God is such a radical change for almost everyone that daring to head in this new direction requires being born again, spiritually speaking. Jesus appeals, still appeals, to highly religious people who have gone to the top in the religion they practice and participate in leaving, but who wake up one morning and know they’ve had it all wrong. It’s not too late to make a change.
Women in Jesus’ day largely were property, but women flocked to Jesus because he loved them as people, not as sex objects, and he saw them as having as much to offer his movement as did any men so Jesus had two groups of inner circle supporters: the men, whom he called the disciples, and women, whom he called of all things “the women.” If women were so equal to the men in Jesus’ eye why not one group made up of both women AND men? That was because social standards of the day didn’t permit women the same freedom they permitted men. Women weren’t generally supposed to be seen in public unless they were with the man to whom they were societally related: husband, adult son, brother-in-law, and so on. For this reason and others, women could not travel the same distances with Jesus as the men could. So Jesus appealed to those whom society as a whole had devalued, but whom Jesus revalued.
In his group of male followers, “the disciples,” he included men, several men, that most of the rest of society wanted nothing to do with. He did not build a male base by calling into service the most highly regarded men around. He had fishermen in his male inner circle; they were way down the social ladder because they stunk and because in killing and cleaning fish, animal blood ran over their hands, which was a mark of true uncleanness to the ritually sensitive Jews who had been taught only to deal with those who were clean, fully clean. Jesus had at least one tax collector in the group, a Jew who worked for the Romans collecting outrageous amounts of taxes from the poor Jews and adding in their own ridiculously high commissions leaving many a Jew without funds to be able to feed a family, literally. Two of the twelve had the capacity to talk a great loyalty game and mean it, but when tough times came one would out and out deny Jesus, and the other would leave Jesus in grave danger because he thought he knew better than Jesus what Jesus should be doing in his service to their fellow Jews. There were two in the group who were blatantly power hungry, and Jesus had said, “They can learn to be humble servants too.” James and John and their Mama weren’t crazy about Jesus’ plan for retraining those who expected favors and wide recognition for their efforts.
So if Jesus were putting together a group of twelve men to follow him today, Billy Graham wouldn’t be invited even if his health permitted him to take on the obligation. Pat Robertson would excluded from the list. No Joel Osteen. No Bishop T. D. Jakes. No Rick Warren. No Bishop Eddie Long. No Pope. No Dalai Lama. In fact, Jesus didn’t have any religious leaders in his inner circle; they were all laypersons until Jesus commissioned them for ministry. Jesus appeals to us today, for this reason too, that he takes a chance on those others have given up on and those who may or may not stand with him when times are tough.
If Jesus were appointing a group of twelve male disciples today, I’d look for a couple of guys who clean and repair sewers just because Jesus had a thing for supporting those whom others held their noses around. I’d look for Bernie Madoff. I’d look for Tiger Woods. I’d look for Newt Gingrich and Barney Frank. I’d look for Bill Clinton and Herman Cain. Jesus still appeals to us today because those close to him got second chances regardless of the severity of their blunders.
Jesus was down to earth, comfortable in the nitty gritty; he was supremely understanding and unfailingly forgiving. He was squarely grounded in God and expected his followers to find their way to that place as well. His compassion was boundless. His respect for diversity in religion and in life was astounding.
We want a religious figure to look back to whose life exemplified such truths and principles and in an amazingly down to earth way. Some of us are drawn to Jesus today because the Jesus of history as we learn about him is irresistible. When it came to God and to life, he got it. We want to get it too, and we can.