The Search for the Real Jesus of History

Who was Jesus? After two millenia, that question haunts us still. It has haunted me since childhood, and I’ve always felt that the best thing I could do while still alive was find some answers to that question. At midlife, I’ve reached some tentative conclusions, most of which (I hope and believe) are supported by what historical evidence survives.

Much nonsense has been written and spoken about Jesus, about what He said and believed. Some believe He was a New – Ager, that He spent time in India, or would be a Socialist or Communist were He alive today. These claims are absurd, as unsupported as the theory that He was an Essene. But He was unique.

To use some recent terminology, Jesus was an eschatological prophet. He taught that the the world was under immanent judgement, and that those surrounding Him would live to see it. There had been portents, unusual signs in the heavens at, or around the time of His birth. The iniquities of the Roman occupation of Judea, and most of the known world in His time, were manifest, out in the open, horrific. Pilate, far from being filled with regrets as some Apocryphal literature suggests, was one of the most brutal of men ever to be appointed Procurator. His excesses were such that shortly after the Crucifixion, he was recalled to Rome, along with Caiphas, his collaborator. Then there were the passages in Isaiah, which appear to predict the direction He would take. His relationship with John the Baptist foreshadowed His purpose and mission. John represented the legalistic strain of Judaism at the time, the belief in God’s return as an avenger , the destroyer of the existing order. Most Jews believed that the Messiah, when He came, would be a military leader. They expressed outrage at any suggestion that the Messiah would have been the subject of a crucifixion, the lot of a criminal. These beliefs animated conversations between early Christians and Jews, as the former attempted to reach out to the larger Jewish community in the years following the Crucifixion. Most Jews could not accept the notion of a suffering Messiah. They wanted a triumphant Messiah. The Temple Priests saw Him as a troublemaker; most of them realized that the larger population saw them as Roman collaborators, which was how they had viewed Herod himself.

After the Crucifixion, James, the Brother of Jesus, became head of the Jerusalem Assembly, the new Christian church, such as it was. His relations with Paul were strained, largely out of his belief that Paul sought to “hijack” the movement. Paul’s purpose was different from James: he had a different audiance, namely the Greeco-Roman world beyond Judea, and he wanted to appeal to it. By all accounts, he had less interest in Jesus’ teachings, than in the stories of His Resurrection.
There appears widespread agreement among scholars that Jesus was born a Jew, and thought of Himself as a Jew throughout His life, and nowhere intended to start a new, or different religion. Hollywood has convinced many people otherwise, with big budgets, special effects, and dramatic sequences. The result has been misleading. The actual figure was at once more human, and more divine, than anything Hollywood ever staged.

What do these facts suggest to me? Albert Schweitzer once remarked that Jesus was “…an enigma, a stranger to our times…” I believe that is only a half-truth, for every Age is the same. Even Frederick Nietzsche, the most savage of all critics of Christianity, conceeded Jesus’ truthfullness, a fact that should give us pause today. I don’t think most people found it comfortable, or necessarily comforting, to have Jesus around. A few, yes. But not the majority. That is because their relationship with Truth, that transpersonal, unsettling thing, was flawed. These people feared Jesus, in the same way, and for the same reasons that a profligate, loose-living patient fears the Doctor. The rest is history. Would it recur, even today?

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