Peter Wicks | Wednesday, November 17, 2004
“I think Jesus probably existed,” said the man in the pub, before proceeding to explain that his message had been corrupted by the Church. Having only met the man that evening it felt a bit early to get into a debate about Jesus, but in hindsight I brought it on myself by making it clear that I had no interest in soccer. Upon meeting a countryman who doesn’t follow soccer, an Englishman is liable to go through a process somewhat akin to grief, quickly cycling through stages of denial, confusion, anger and negotiation, before finally reaching a resigned acceptance. Then he is likely to panic and start talking about something that matters.
Jesus’ true message, the man opined with some conviction, had been about love (Jesus was for it) and tolerance (he was in favor of that too). But the Church had twisted that message and made it about rules and, while we were on the subject, Christians are hypocrites too.
Although the man clearly took some pride in his insight, there was nothing particularly original about his idea; it was the view of John Lennon, and it could fairly be described as orthodoxy amongst those who are always explaining that while they have no time for organized religion, they are nevertheless very spiritual people.
Jesus has a strong claim to be the most influential person who ever lived; Napolean, Lincoln and Mao are footnotes by comparison. Students of history, believers and nonbelievers alike, must sooner or later confront the fact that a Jew from an obscure province of the Roman Empire shaped the course of history and changed the way we see the world in ways too profound to fathom. “How should we feel if we had never heard of Christ?” Wittgenstein once asked, fully knowing that the question was unanswerable.
The first systematic attempt by scholars to get behind the gospels to the Jesus of history began in Germany in the 19th century, at more or less the same time that Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern historical scholarship, offered the novel suggestion that the historian should limit himself to describing the events of the past as they had happened. Scholars wrote widely-read and controversial tomes offering to reveal the man behind the myths. When George Elliot translated one of these works, David Strauss’ “Life of Jesus,” the public was scandalized.
The common flaw of these 19th century lives of Jesus was diagnosed by Albert Schweitzer, a missionary doctor and musicologist who himself has a fair claim to being one of the most remarkable men to have ever lived. Schweitzer surveyed the work of these historians and concluded that the authors had all constructed an image of Jesus which corresponded with their own moral convictions. The historical Jesus was a mirror in which people saw, not their own reflection, but the personification of their ideals.
Schweitzer was only concerned with the historians, but his lesson applies more generally: tell me what you make of Jesus and I’ll tell you who you are.
When we read William Blake calling Christ an artist it tells us a lot about Blake but nothing about Jesus. Oscar Wilde had the talent to be a professor of Greek, thought not the temperament, and when he was a prisoner in Reading Gaol he sustained himself through a close reading of the Gospels in the original Greek. And yet even those of us who have to rely upon a translation can see that the conclusion he drew, that Christ was a supreme poet, was largely a result of his wishful thinking.
In the Gospels we find what we are looking for, and nothing else. To some Jesus is nothing more than a font of “I’m OK, you’re OK” banalities, a YMCA camp counselor who somehow got mistaken for the Messiah.
To others he appears to be a martyred advocate for their favorite cause. Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” which has a nice ring to it, and is just vague enough to secure the nodding of heads from almost any audience. He also said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” although I don’t expect you’ll see that chalked onto a sidewalk any time soon.
Some are as interested in Jesus’ silence as in his teaching. As far as we know, Jesus never explicitly condemned same-sex intercourse, although that seems like slim evidence for the conclusion that he was the only rabbi in the first century who saw nothing wrong with it. But he was not silent about heterosexual lust or the love of wealth, and taught that both were serious spiritual dangers. We should not be surprised if those who disagree with the Catholic position on homosexuality have little patience with those who quote scripture only when it forbids that for which they have never felt desire.
In preparation for writing this article I resolved to reread the Gospels. It proved harder than I expected. W.H. Auden once said that a real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us. The Jesus of the Gospels is rather like that. Whereas the Jesus we know is a comfortable figure; the Jesus who knows us is altogether more frightening. But if that wasn’t the case, what could his forgiveness mean?
Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.