Justin Brierley examines the latest reinventions of the Jesus of history. Ten years on from Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, fresh rumours of who Jesus really was still shift books in their hundreds of thousands.
You could almost hear the collective sigh of exasperation (heaved by 1,000 Bible scholars) when Richard Dawkins tweeted a link to an article about the historical Jesus to his 850,000 followers in October. Unsurprisingly, the arch-atheist turned out to be promoting a speaking event which threw doubt on the traditional view of Christ. But this was more than your run-of-the-mill scepticism.
The speaker in question, self-published author Joseph Atwill, was presenting his thesis that Jesus Christ was a fictional character, invented by the Roman authorities to pacify the revolutionary sentiments of the Jewish people. The fact that Atwill had neither scholarly credentials (he’s a retired computer programmer) nor a jot of support from any academic in historical studies didn’t seem to matter. After all, everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, don’t they? Especially when it comes to Jesus.
Conjuring a Christ in our own image is an increasingly common phenomenon. Believers of different stripes have variously cast him as a socialist revolutionary (Terry Eagleton), a dreadlocked Rastafarian (Robert Beckford), a pacifist (Shane Claiborne), or a Rambo-figure ready for a scrap with any liberal theologian who crosses his path (Mark Driscoll). There are plenty of non-Christian interpretations out there too, from the secular liberal painted by Philip Pullman in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate Books) to the New Age guru portrayed by Deepak Chopra in Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (HarperOne). With so many attempts to recast the first-century Jew, how do we tell him apart from the other incarnations that lay claim to his name, and what lies behind the recent drive by certain scholars to give Jesus a new identity?
HOT-HEAD, HUSBAND OR HOAX?
Reinventing the character of Jesus goes back a long way. By the second century AD, various religious sects were writing their own accounts of the life of Christ that bore little connection to the first-hand testimony of the Gospels. The popular revival of interest in these so-called ‘Gnostic’ writings was led by Dan Brown, whose 2003 religious thriller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday) mixed fact and fiction together (and lo, ‘faction’ was born). Whether it was intended or not, the novel’s runaway success led many of his readers to believe that the real history of Jesus had been covered up by sinister Church bodies for propaganda purposes.
A recent (and more serious) attempt to re-imagine Christ is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (The Westbourne Press). The book claims to show that Jesus was a rabble-rousing political revolutionary, not the peace-loving Messiah of scripture. Its author, Reza Aslan, was brought to public attention after a Fox News interviewer questioned whether, as a Muslim, he had the authority to write such a book. Their toe-curling exchange, in which Aslan bristles with indignation, became a YouTube hit and contributed to the book becoming a bestseller.
If you put ‘sex’ and ‘Jesus’ in the same sentence you are almost certain to get a headline
In 2012, another drama played out in headlines across the world: a fragment of ancient manuscript in which Jesus purportedly refers to his ‘wife’ was trumpeted as evidence that Jesus had been a married man. Throwing aside conventional academic etiquette, Harvard professor Karen King announced the news to the media before it had undergone scholarly review. Subsequent tests on the relic revealed the parchment was indeed old, but the writing itself had likely been cut and pasted from an online document. King had been the victim of an elaborate hoax.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WH SMITH
Anthony Le Donne is a New Testament historian whose book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld) examines the infamous Karen King manuscript as well as other historical claims that Jesus was married. After meticulous research, he arrived at the conclusion that Jesus was a celibate man (albeit unusually for a rabbi of his day). It’s a non-sensational verdict which he freely admits will not put him into competition with those whose book sales rely on more exotic theories.
‘The old adage that “sex sells” remains true’, says Le Donne. ‘If you put “sex” and “Jesus” in the same sentence you are almost certain to get a headline. There is a pressure on scholars to go the sensationalist route. As I wrote my book, I knew that all I had to say was “Jesus was probably married to Mary Magdalene or the woman considered to be a prostitute” for my book sales to go through the roof. However, I can’t say that because it’s not historically responsible.’
Along with many other historians, Le Donne has also delivered a stinging rebuttal to Aslan’s claims that Jesus was a political revolutionary. In a pointed article titled ‘A Usually Happy Fellow Reviews Aslan’s Zealot’, he accused the Iranian-born writer of recycling a long-debunked myth with shoddy scholarship to boot. However, some alternative theories about Jesus go much further even than Aslan’s critique.
ATHEIST ATTEMPTS TO ELIMINATE JESUS
The most ambitious sceptics have tried to eliminate Jesus altogether by claiming that he never existed. The argument that Jesus is actually a pastiche of pagan deities with similar dying-and-rising myths has become popular among many atheists after a conspiracy theory film called Zeitgeist amassed millions of views online. In reality, the supposed parallels fall apart when examined in any detail, leaving the question of why some people are so keen to paint Jesus out of existence.
The equivalent of an online fist-fight broke out in 2012 when Richard Carrier, a prominent ‘Jesus mythicist’, entered into a war of words with Professor Bart Ehrman. An agnostic Bible scholar, Ehrman had won favour among the sceptical community for casting doubt upon aspects of the reliability of the Gospels. But when he decided to write a book refuting the idea that Jesus did not exist (after he kept hearing it from atheists), his research was blasted by Carrier in a scathing review that led to counter-responses on both sides.
Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, especially when it comes to Jesus
For mainstream academics, those who take the view that Jesus was a hoax belong in the same category as those who claim that the moon landings were faked. There may be a debate over the precise details of his ministry, but the evidence that Jesus lived as an itinerant preacher and died by Roman crucifixion is beyond dispute. Reflecting on why Carrier and the atheist community remain so keen to fly in the face of accepted scholarship, Ehrman has suggested that their anti-religious bias is clouding their judgement.
‘My guess is that they are people who believe that organised religion is a major problem, so they choose to attack Christianity by claiming that it is rooted in a fairy tale. They can then claim that Christianity was something made up in order to oppress people.’
DO CHRISTIANS HAVE THE REAL CHRIST?
There is a famous maxim, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, that ‘history is written by the victors’. In the case of Jesus, the radical sceptics and mainstream scholars are still in a tussle over who will win. However, the fact remains that most of the far-out theories rely on extra-biblical accounts written long after the time of Christ. Mundanely enough, the early Church councils were in the best position to judge which biographies were reliable ? and they chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.Anthony McRoy, of Wales Evangelical School of Theology, says that the way the Church decided on the books of the New Testament bears little resemblance to the conspiracy theories of Dan Brown and Philip Pullman.
‘The criteria for canonicity centred on a Gospel being written by someone who lived in the apostolic age. There is a history of transmission of these reliable texts that can be traced in other writings soon after. None of the so-called Gnostic gospels ever got a look in. They came later on, often taking the canonical Gospels and embellishing them with their own stories too.’
Ironically, it is the orthodox Christian view of Jesus that remains the most radical of all ? that a first-century Jewish teacher described himself as the Son of God and rose from the dead in vindication of that claim. As NT Wright points out, the very absurdity of that belief on the lips of Jesus’ first followers is precisely what gives it such powerful resonance today.
‘As a historian, unless you say Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, it is very difficult to explain many of the features of early Christianity. They all came to believe that if you died in Christ you would be raised from death on the last day to share in God’s new world. That was a radical break from the norms of the surrounding pagan culture. So, why did they believe it? They all said it was because of what God had done to Jesus.’
But I doubt Richard Dawkins will be tweeting that any time soon.
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4 modern myths about Jesus
#1 Jesus the zealot
Reza Aslan’s best-selling book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth begins by quoting Matthew 10:34: ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ Aslan’s Jesus becomes one of many apocalyptic preachers in first century Judea, fomenting Jewish rebellion against the Roman overlords. Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire is at the centre of the book’s thesis: it was a punishment reserved for criminals who had committed acts of treason against the state. Aslan claims that the early Church later refashioned Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher in the Gospels.
New Testament scholar Anthony Le Donne responds:
‘Reading Zealot was a very troubling experience for me because there was an historical error on at least every third page. Even the “sword” quote is immediately followed in Matthew by Jesus making clear that he is referring to an inter-Jewish, inter-family conflict. Yet, Aslan seems to suggest he is talking about a literal sword aimed outward to non-Jews.
#2 Jesus the legend
Ever popular with atheist websites, numerous theories that Jesus never actually existed have been advanced in recent years. US author Richard Carrier is the world’s leading ‘Jesus mythicist’. He holds that early Christians believed in Jesus as a purely spiritual Messiah-figure who was located in a heavenly realm. He points out that the earliest source of Christianity, St Paul (who did exist), never met a physical Jesus himself. He believes the Gospels were later fabrications that fleshed out an earthly story for Christ.
Bible historian NT Wright responds:
‘The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the best attested facts in ancient history. The idea that Jesus never existed is something that no ancient historian would take seriously for a minute.
‘If we take Jesus out of the world of first century Palestinian Judaism, there are 1,000 other things that we simply can’t explain. All sorts of evidence points back to the certainty of this figure, and particularly his crucifixion. It was the most barbaric and horrible way to die in those days, yet Christians made the cross the symbol of their movement from the very beginning. Without the actual death of Jesus, that cultural shift is impossible to explain.’
‘I think it’s very important that the Western world takes the historical fact of the non-violent teachings of Jesus seriously. Jesus was not just a prophet for his time, he is a prophet for our time.’
#3 Jesus the Husband
From the plot line of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, to recent claims about a new manuscript, the theory that Jesus had a wife has repeatedly surfaced. Professor Karen King’s recent discovery of the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ hinged on a fragment of papyrus bearing the words ‘Jesus said to them, “my wife…”’. The fragment has since been widely discredited, though some scholars argue that it would have been highly unusual for Jesus not to marry, as would have been the norm for a rabbi of the time.
Anthony Le Donne, author of The Wife of Jesus, responds:
‘We firstly need to dispel the notion that Jesus was some sort of Romeo, pursuing a bride. That’s not how the culture worked. It’s very likely that Mary and Joseph would have felt an enormous pressure to arrange a marriage for Jesus. Yet, when we first meet the adult Jesus he seems to eschew these notions of economic security and family honour ? the very things that are tied to marriage.
‘Jesus looks like the kind of person who would not have taken on one of his disciples as a bride. In fact he says that a man is “blessed to be a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom”. The balance of evidence suggests he was a non-conformist who remained single.’
#4 Jesus the guru
A less historically based (but no less influential) reading of Jesus’ life has come from Deepak Chopra, a popular author of New Age self-help books. In Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment, Chopra imaginatively fills in ‘the missing years’ between childhood and Christ’s adult ministry. Drawing heavily on Eastern mysticism, Jesus finds spiritual enlightenment from a sage on an icy mountaintop before achieving ‘oneness’ with God. Similarly, in The Third Jesus (Rider), Chopra attempts to pluck Jesus from his context, presenting him as a spiritual sage for all religious traditions.
Chris Sinkinson, lecturer at Moorlands College, responds:
‘Chopra’s speculation on the “God consciousness” of Jesus imports a very alien worldview into the Jewish-Hebrew context and culture of Jesus, and means his language is distorted completely. It’s actually a very Gnostic view of Jesus ? an anti-material view, which is not Jewish at all.
‘Jesus draws attention to himself as the source of forgiveness, salvation and transformation. That makes him much more than just “a great moral teacher”. In the end, Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a New Age guru or teaching self-help therapy. Jesus was crucified for what was considered blasphemy among first-century Jews: his claim that as Messiah he was the one who could bring forgiveness and transformation.’