What’s the point of historical Jesus?

Joel Watts writes in “Unsettled Christianity” linking to some sources talking about Historical Jesus research (or as one would have it, speculation). I feel moved to write a bit about this, given (if nothing else) that I have been throwing posts to and fro on The Religion Forum over the last few weeks with a couple of Jewish friends, one of whom remains convinced that Jesus was a fictional character made up by “the Church Fathers”, in which I’m pretty sure he means more Paul and the four Evangelists than those we tend to call “Church Fathers”. I don’t link to that discussion, as I don’t think it sheds much light; it can be found in the “Interfaith” section under “The Genesis of God…” thread.

Like the anonymous Irish Atheist of the second link, I don’t find it reasonably feasible that there was not a genuine historical individual called Jesus, so the complete mythicism of the first link seems bizarre to me. And yet, is it?

I do notice in practice that most Christians of the more conservative and/or more evangelical bent seem fixated virtually entirely on “the Christ of Faith” (as opposed to “the Jesus of History”). Yes, if you consider the major impact of the Christian message (that is, hopefully, to say the message of Jesus) to be that a god-man came into existence and died nastily {and was resurrected, though that is not necessarily as important} to produce a metaphysical change in the universe ( i.e. in God’s attitude to humanity) which benefited those who could induce themselves to believe certain things about him.  

I don’t. Somewhat naively, perhaps, I think that the major impact of the resurrection was to validate the lifetime words of Jesus, which in turn I see as centred on the announcement of the Kingdom of God as being a present and growing reality at that time, into which he invited his followers. I see the Kingdom of God as being, in part, a vibrant personal relationship with God verging on unity with him/her/it/other. I can understand that; it is something I have experienced, off and on, for most of my adult life.

Resurrection? Well yes. I am admittedly far closer to the Irish Atheist than the majority of the Christians around me – no, let me rephrase that, than any of the Christians around me. I don’t really do supernatural (with some provisos, which do not affect this argument). However, going back to the acknowledgement that there HAD to be a Jesus in order that within 20 years or so of his death there would be a rapidly growing group of followers who had penetrated half way across the Roman world in numbers, there also, to me, HAD to be something radically different about their experience shortly after their leader’s maximally painful and degrading death at the hands of the then world superpower from, say, the several previous and later Jewish resistance leaders whose followers disintegrated immediately after their deaths, insofar as they themselves survived their leader.

I read the various accounts in the gospels, and note that if you attempt to harmonise them, you do not get a physical resurrection in the body which was buried; as Paul says at an early stage, you get a Jesus resurrected in a radically different form. One which can walk through walls and very nearly bilocate. I grant you that there are stories of eating (could be illusion) and touching (I’ve personally experienced a tactile hallucination of Jesus) and that several people have seen the same thing at the same time (I’ve witnessed group hallucinations, even if I were unaware of the tendency of groups to provoke false memory in each other), but they don’t shake my conclusion that the primary location of these events was in the minds of followers. OK, there may have been some actual physical component, I suppose (as a scientist I can never say something thought scientifically impossible could absolutely NOT happen), but I don’t need that in order to explain the accounts, and the accounts are more than ample to explain why the cult spread.

For completeness, the accounts said there was an empty tomb. The number of possible naturalistic explanations for this are legion, and not all of them involve an agent who would then have been delighted to produce the remains.

So, I have an experienced, if not a photographable, resurrection as a very probable historical fact.

Clearly, I don’t have any miracles as very probable historical facts, as massive scientific improbability makes them – well – miraculous. No, this doesn’t incline me to think that they may actually have happened exactly as reported, it merely inclines me to believe that the writers has the same attitude to reporting supernatural events as most previous “historians” in the Greek speaking world had had, namely that they were quite likely explanations anyhow and that if a person were important, they were absolutely guaranteed.

Is this remotely important to me? No. I am not likely to be convinced by a miracle I actually witness, let alone one reported by someone living in a far more credulous age. I am likely to look for a naturalistic explanation and, if one does not come to hand, put it in the category of “strange events to be investigated later if at all” (i.e. “anomalous experimental results”). In any event, the concept of a God who is obliged to transgress the remarkably wonderful systems of nature which he may possibly have had some hand in creating in order to put right something which was probably not broken in the first place and which could have been far more simply put right by the transgressing of a lot less natural principles is not one which I can reconcile with my own experience of God.

However, we need to go back to what I said almost at the beginning: it is important to me, it is always going to be important to me, to know what the message actually was which Jesus brought with him, expounded in person, and in order to extract that from the writings of his followers, who were far more concerned about what Jesus meant to them and to the world as a whole than they were with what he actually said, I need Historical Jesus study.

I do approach Historical Jesus study cautiously, even though I am looking to use the skills of the experts in this field to give me a set of giant shoulders on which to climb in order, hopefully, to see a little further. Many of the scholars in this field discount things which I might not discount; notably, few, very few, are identifiable as practising contemplative mystics, and they therefore discount things as inauthentic which I look and say “Yes, that’s a figurative description of what this or that aspect of the mystical state is like”, or is a consequence of such thinking.

Given that I indicated earlier that I was well acquainted with a state of quasi-unity with God, why am I bothered about this? Can’t I just use that state in order to gain my own more direct knowledge? Well, no. Firstly, I am not much (if at all) in control of what happens when in such a state, including what information I may receive. Secondly, the picture I have formed of Jesus over the years from those writings which I am reasonably confident DO reflect his lifetime teachings indicate to me someone who was massively better acquainted with that state then me, and whose information would therefore be hugely better.

And lastly, I know personally of no way to ensure that those around me have a similar experience to my own, which I would wish on all of my friends (should they wish it for themselves) and, yes, all of my enemies, irrespective of whether they might wish it for themselves (they deserve the total comprehension of personal wrongdoing which tends to come with it, even if not the associated comprehension of forgiveness…). I believe there are clues and possibly more than clues as to this in Jesus’ statements. But then, I believe there are clues and possibly more than clues as to this in the statements of some of his followers; I just don’t regard them as equally reliable with those of Jesus.  I do think that following what Jesus suggested at least improves everyone’s chances – and even if it doesn’t improve a particular individual’s position, it produces a better world through their actions.

That, too, is God’s Kingdom, and no deferred gratification is needed for a small advance of it day by day.

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