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The Jesus Nobody Ever Knew

by Bob R. of a priori blues --

This cover story of this month's issue of Christianity Today, whose subtitle is "A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction", is called "The Jesus We'll Never Know."
This title is playing off the title of a popular book by Christianity Today reporter Phillip Yancey, called The Jesus I Never Knew, which was a quaint, devotional little book about "meeting Jesus again for the first time" and all that happy stuff.  Yancey's book was one of dozens if not hundreds of books from the popular devotional genre written in the guise of objectivity or journalism or science, but intended to do nothing more than prop up the existing, Evangelical/Fundamentalist ideas about "the Historical Jesus", and why it really, really, really is rational to believe that a human being walked on water that wasn't frozen, made wine without grapes, or woke up none the worse for wear after being brain dead for three days.  I belabor the point about Yancey's book here because it has a lot to say not only about this month's article by Scot McKnight, but about the Historical Jesus / Jesus of Faith issue in general.  It should be noted that the Yancey book on Jesus is like all devotional books or writings about Jesus, including the Gospels:  It is first of all an artifact that was produced by a person who previously decided to devote their life to the worship of a being that they had never seen or interacted with in person.  Yancey's exposure to Jesus came 2,000 years after that of the Gospel writers', but it is essentially identical to it--it is a religious feeling and it is based upon a tradition of the religious feelings of others just like himself.  In addition to this, and in a way that is crucial for anyone who wants to actually study Jesus rather than worship him solely while rejecting any rational or scientific inquiry about him, Yancey's book about Jesus is like the first books about Jesus in a way that is critical for us to understand:  It is a lie.  It is a book that is intentionally misleading, and one that hijacks the reader's confidence by purporting to be a factual, objective, "journalistic" account of Jesus, when, truth be told, it is anything but that.

When the Gospels were written (or rather compiled from several pre-existing sources), journalism did not exist, and historiography was new to the cultural scene.  In place of objective reportage, ancient peoples were accustomed to reading books that were written in the guise of objectivity, but were nothing more than the religious imaginations of the author or, even worse, their religious delusions. The ancient market was saturated with tales that were allegedly written by Moses, or one of the Patriarchs, or any of the Old Testament characters, and on and on, so ancient readers didn't even bother to consider whether or not they were being lied to when they picked up a book (or a scroll, as the case may be).  The practice was so ubiquitous that we cannot even question whether or not the people of that time actually believed that Solomon wrote the Wisdom of Solomon (in Greek, Solomon was a Hebrew), because such a distinction would never have occurred to them.  In fact, it took about 1,500 years after Christ for someone to begin to think critically about this issue, as Baruch Spinoza famously, and thankfully, began to do.

Almost all books that were circulated in the Ancient world were religious, and almost all (in fact, probably all) of these books were pseudepigraphical or pseudonymous.  That means, when we get right down to it, they were lies.  When someone writes a novel and pretends to be someone else, like when Samuel Clemens pretends to be Mark Twain pretending to be Huck Finn, we don't call it lying--we call it art.  That's because Mr. Clemens isn't asking us to commit our eternal destiny to the dictates of young Mr. Finn.  But, when someone does this with a piece of religious fiction and then expects their audience to actually believe that the book written by Joe Shlomo was actually written by Enoch, we have no choice but to call it lying.  Of course "we" in this case can only refer to those of us who understand that the Book of Enoch, which was written in Greek, could not have been written by Enoch, who only appears in the Hebrew Bible, and who does so at a time before either the Greek or Hebrew languages would have existed, to say nothing of the invention of writing.   The Ancients didn't seem to trouble themselves much about the obvious.  By extension, "we" in this case also refers to those of us who understand that the Gospel of Mark could not be an "eyewitness" or historically reliable account of Jesus, since even if it was written by Mark (it wasn't) it wouldn't matter anyway, because Mark wasn't even there during Jesus' ministry, and so, at best, he's passing on second hand information. But, of course, he's not, and even calling the author "he" demonstrates our propensity to see ancient texts the way that we see modern texts, that is, as having an author.  Most ancient texts evolved out of communities, so when they finally came to be compiled and committed to writing, they may have actually had dozens or hundreds of "authors" as traditions passed from one person to another until they became crystallized and standardized enough to warrant the waste of ink and paper involved in writing them down.  This isn't a skeptical opinion of the Gospels, it's just how it was--ancient manuscripts didn't even have titles, and it was several generations before anyone even thought to propose titles for them.  Any modern day notions we have about "who" "wrote" "the" "Gospels" only shows that we are a culture that has authors (rather than communities that transmit stories and sayings), whose authors have access to writing materials and can afford to write things down (as most Ancients did not), who also happen to be literate (as most Ancients were not), who see books as completed artifacts that are self contained (rather than repositories of communal wisdom that is constantly evolving), and who who think the Gospels were the four books written about Jesus (rather than the four selected by a 4th century church council out of the dozens, if not hundreds, that were circulating at the time).

Almost all books that were circulated in the Ancient world were religious, and almost all (in fact, probably all) of these books were pseudepigraphical or pseudonymous. Now, to have some idea of what it might have been like to be alive in the first and second centuries AD, where religious people were making stuff up about Jesus, then attributing it to him, then writing it down and passing it off as though first of all He said and did it, and second of all You need to follow it, we need look no further than the Phillip Yancey's or Lee Strobel's or Josh McDowell's of the world.  People do this today--they sit down at their desk in their Church or Parachurch Ministry office and pretend as though they are journalists or lawyers.  They then proceed to write a devotional book about how you should worship Jesus, but they pretend as though they are writing an objective, scientific account of "the Historical Jesus".  It's a tradition as old as the Gospels themselves, and even older.  It's your job to understand that they are lying.

So, after that long excursion, I want to return to this month's article "The Jesus We'll Never Know", because, while it's intention is to convince Christians that the Historical Jesus research of the last 500 years has all been for naught, and that Jesus is just too ineffible to be caught and pinned down by scientific research, if you read closely you'll see that the article, and the entire Evangelical edifice surrounding Jesus, actually subverts itself.  For one, in the introduction Scot McKnight mentions the fact that he has his students take a personality test in his Jesus course.  First, they fill it out and describe what they think Jesus' personality is.  Then, they fill it out and describe themselves.  Lo, and behold, the tests show that people think Jesus is just like them.  Of course, if you knew anything about what I said in the previous paragraphs, you would have expected this.  This is what people have always done with Jesus, and with all of their religious icons.  They created them in their own image, and then, once they were finished, they worshiped the image they created and expected others to do the same.  For Evangelicals, who are desperate to find rationale for the patently false things that they believe in, an exercise like the one McKnight describes, which demonstrates this fact beyond a shadow of a doubt, some kind of spin is in order.  What do you do when you realize that your own prejudice and preconceived ideas betray you?  Why, you claim that this is what everyone is doing, of course.  You, a supremely relativistic person, who discovers the fact that Jesus is just a reflection of yourself, turn to level the charge against the world--that the world is relativistic, and that anyone who says that they have any degree of understanding or knowledge is only doing what you are doing, which is spouting relativistic nonsense.  So, when a scholar has successfully demonstrated that the Gospels are obviously cobbled together from pre-existing sources, and that almost none of the available material can reliably be traced back to an actual, Historical Jesus, what do you do, if you're an Evangelical?  You claim that they are just creating Jesus in their own image.  You claim that those whose understanding of Jesus is based on evidence and fact are simply skeptics, so naturally they are skeptical about Jesus.  You are shy, so you think Jesus is shy.  They are skeptics, so they are skeptical about the evidence of Jesus.  More to the point--you are lying about Jesus, lying to yourself about Jesus, lying to yourself about the obvious fact that you've created Jesus in your own image, so you charge those who don't indulge in your lie with being liars themselves.  Brilliant.

In addition to starting his article off by admitting that believers in Jesus are lying themselves and are creating Jesus in their own image, McKnight goes on to admit what everybody already knows--that there is not a shred of reliable evidence for the historicity of the Jesus character in the gospels.  No, not one.  His title says as much, and he mentions that he has even passed up appointments to academic committees devoted to historical Jesus research because of this fact.  But, again, some spin is in order.  Rather than being content to leave it at that, to mention that there is no evidence and probably never will be, McKnight has to continue to find a place to lay blame.  So, to him, it's not that there's no reliable, incontrovertible evidence.  It's that the scholarly field of historical Jesus research is so hopelessly prejudiced toward non belief that nothing can be accomplished, so why even bother.  Since he's committed to believing that there really, really was a resurrection and an empty tomb, even though there's no evidence, he's turning his back on the entire project, since nobody who is serious about historical Jesus research is willing to play along.  He's taking his ball and going home, because he doesn't think that anyone else is playing fair, but only because they're not treating an impossible event as history.

I can feel McKnight's pain, having gone through this process myself.  I once "was blind" with respect to faith in Jesus.  And, then "I saw", and I believed in Him wholeheartedly.  I experienced him in the pages of the Bible.  I knew the resurrection was a reality, because I felt it in my heart, and saw it in my own life.  But, then, I realized, that what I considered "sight" with respect to faith in Jesus, was just an alternate form of "blindness" with respect to reality.  In fact, it was the inversion of reality in favor of my own, private facts, and was a way of re-making reality into the image that I wanted it to be.  In my own image.  Just like Jesus.  I decided first that the empty tomb was real, and no matter what, I was going to cling to that. There was a time in my own life when I could have said exactly what McKnight says here, though, now, I recognize that this is just the admission of one's own sad, pathetic, purposeful lie:

I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can't. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much. and was raised
Not to be overly congratulatory of myself, but it took all the moral courage I could muster to turn my back on sentiments like these, after I had come to the end of the road of my own Quest for the Historical Jesus.  I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, and yet, at the same time, I feel obligated to share it with everyone in the world.  Texts about Jesus are the same as texts about Huck Finn.  They are art, and they are written by people pretending to be someone that they are not.  If there was a Church of of the Holy Huckleberry Finn, you and I would be the first ones to tell the worshipers that it was just a story, and to show them the evidence, so that they could get on with their lives. Otherwise, good people, and I would consider myself a good person, might fall prey to the fiction, and might end up devoting their lives to worshiping and serving Huck, which would be a serious problem.  It's one thing to have a favorite book.  It's another to have a Bible.

The problem here, for Mr. McKnight, is that no one could establish that the "tomb was empty".  There are many empty tombs in Palestine, but, to my knowledge, not even the Church can make up its mind about which one belonged to Jesus.  If Jesus were actually raised, you would think that somebody would have considered it a significant enough event to make a note as to which tomb he came out of, but alas, nobody did.  That's not sufficient evidence against the resurrection, just against the notion that we can ever hope to identify the empty tomb.  Unless Jesus' DNA is found on the wall, we'll never be able to do such a thing, and too bad for us that he flew away, because we'll never be able to find any of his DNA.  Even if such a thing as the resurrection had actually happened in Jesus' case (in a special way not to be confused with the thousands of Ancient myths about resurrection that are not considered historical by the church), what would it matter from the perspective of historical inquiry?  History could no more tell us where lightning may have struck at a particular moment 2,000 years ago than it can tell us if or where a miracle may have taken place.  Actually, there may be a way that science could account for all occurrences of lightning throughout all history, since lightning can be measured.  But how do you measure a miracle? Scientific inquiry regarding miracles would be the equivalent of trying to scientifically establish one breath that one person in one place at one time exhaled 2,000 years ago.  Whatever it was that resuscitated a dead man after three days, however, could not be measured, and therefore cannot be a part of historical or scientific inquiry.  Anomalies or singularities--things that happen once and obey no laws of physics or reason--cannot be a part of scientific, rational inquiry, and therefore have no place in scientific disciplines.

Whether such a singularity should be considered factual, therefore, should be based on all the other available data surrounded the case in question. As it stands, all of the data surrounding the historicity of Jesus points in the opposite direction of faith.  What we know about the ancient world tells us ancient communities were just like modern ones--they liked to create their gods and heroes in their own image.  All that we know about the ancient world tells us that creating stories about miracles, resurrections, and the like was the norm, not the exception, and we routinely cast off any such story that's not about someone called Jesus.  What we know about Jesus' day is the same thing we know about our own--that people like to lie to themselves and then to turn around and foist their lies on to others.  And why shouldn't they?  These lies have always been popular, they've always sold books, they've always been handy ways for their purveyors to make a living, to get a cushy appointment or sinecure.  It takes a lot of courage to admit the lie to oneself.  It's always easier to try to turn the tables and claim that everyone else is lying.

The truth, in the case of Historical Jesus research, is this, and it's what everyone who believes in Jesus already knows deep down in their hearts.  There is no evidence.  In fact, there is little evidence that the Jesus character in the gospels was actually even a real person.  But, the evidence that we do have makes the discussion about a Historical Jesus obsolete.  All of the writings about Jesus are demonstrably mythological.  Everything that might shed light on who he was can be shown to be in the same vein as the Book of Enoch, which is to say that it's all Pseudepigraphical, Apocryphal, religious re-casting of pre-existing Jewish mythology.  There's no use referring to the Gospels, since they're in the same genre as the Book of Enoch, and you would never consider referring to the Book of Enoch for information about "the Historical Enoch".  Therefore, given this fact, and this is now an established fact that is open to everyone who decides to take time out of their busy schedule and study it, as they would study any other fact like Gravity or the structure of cells or the human genome, McKnight and others who are of the Evangelical Conviction persuasion, have no choice but to either change sides, or to retreat from the field of Historical Jesus studies.  There is simply, and quite literally, nothing there for them to study.  While he's quick to spin and place blame, McKnight admits as much at the end of his article.  He then proceeds to bring closure by doing at the end what he described his students as doing in the beginning.  In the absence of evidence, after all efforts to find the Jesus of the gospels in the real world have failed, McKnight openly states that he prefers the Jesus that lives inside his own head to the one that may or may not have ever lived in history. The Jesus that lives inside your head can be known, and he is familiar, because he is just like you.  The alternative to him is the one that nobody ever knew.