Many if not most Christians take our ideas of Jesus for granted, assuming that what the churches have taught us about Jesus is true and historically reliable. I have been in churches that try to piece together differing accounts about Jesus’ deeds into one big, albeit clumsy, puzzle: multiple feeding stories, a long post-resurrection narrative (now was it one man, an angel, two men who met the women at the tomb?). Or we simply read one gospel at a time and manage to forget the details that differ by the time we find ourselves reading the next gospel. It is questions like these that led me to my own “quest for the historical Jesus.” I wondered, how much of the gospels are true? What is the most accurate way to learn about who this guy was and what he did? What can I believe, as an intellectually honest Christian?
Fear not, Christian. This quest is not a one-way street to losing your faith. It is fascinating, it is challenging, and it requires a great deal of honesty with yourself. It requires the willingness to lose what you thought you had to gain something new. I hope that what is gained leads you to a deeper communion with God, who has never left us and is always with us.
As part of my quest, I read a book called The Historical Jesus: Five Views. For the full summary / essay of it, click here. For the purposes of having a post you might actually read, however, I will summarize my summary and describe some of the key assumptions and issues of the historical Jesus quest.
- Scholars acknowledge that we are very limited in what we can know about history in general, and Jesus for these purposes. They use sources like the New Testament (considered to have historically reliable details, though not everything in it is true), data points from other non-canonical sources (like the gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Judas, which are not considered to be as historically reliable but help inform us about other theologies of the time), and the treasured non-Christian historical source (Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, written in the first century, is considered important and a valid outside source).
- Scholars often try to tease apart the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith.” The assumption is that after the church encountered Jesus after his resurrection, their theology and beliefs about what he did before his death shifted. Essentially, scholars think the church reshaped historical events and added sayings of Jesus in light of what they ended up believing about him after his death. Scholars often think that Jesus was “deified” here: that after his death, the church believed he was the Son of God or God himself, whereas Jesus wouldn’t have said that about himself while he was alive.
- Figuring out how the Gospels were written is a mystery that has teased scholars for centuries. The common view is that Mark was written first, followed by Matthew and Luke, who used Mark’s gospel when writing their own. Many scholars believe in the existence of “Q,” a document of Jesus’ sayings (probably orally passed down, at first), which is the material that both Matthew and Luke include that is not found in Mark. Another theory is that Matthew was written by using Mark, and that Luke used both of those gospels when writing his own. Those three gospels are called the “Synoptic Gospels” because they are so similar. John is not very similar, varying greatly on style, order of historical events, and theology. John is considered to have been written later, after the theology of the church had been evolving for some time.
- There are countless ideas about who Jesus thought himself to be. Many Christians (unknowingly, perhaps) assume Johannine (meaning, from the Gospel of John) theology, which emphasizes Jesus’ deity and being part of God. I find that John can be read in different ways, especially if you read it with mystic glasses on, or a belief in present connection to the transcendant/God. Some (fringe) scholars believe that Jesus never existed (see post). Some think of Jesus as a social revolutionary who hung out with the marginalized and despised of the day, much like Luke portrays Jesus to be. Some see Jesus as a special Messiah-type figure, firmly planted in a Jewish context but with a message that applied for all.
The puzzle has two parts: first, trying to figure out what, in the sources, originates with Jesus himself, and second, what that means, as well as what the parts that were perhaps literary additions can still tell us about the character of Jesus and the impact he had on his followers. Practically, what does that mean for us today? I can’t say I am anything of an expert, but I am an earnest seeker and want to give valid perspectives a fair shot. I don’t want to craft a “Jesus in my own image,” that is, just one that is easy for me to understand and to follow. I feel lucky to feel rooted in belief in God, who is beyond comprehension but also trustworthy, even as the particulars of my beliefs in Jesus (and thoughts about God) change. This is what gives me the courage to challenge my theology because I feel I still have a center to hold on to. I hope that you may do the same.
I would love to hear the thoughts, perspectives, or insights of any seekers on this quest with me! Let’s be part of the conversation of trying to understand who Jesus was and what we should do about it.
*We, like filmmakers, may consider ourselves at liberty to imagine Jesus in his context… 🙂