“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” George Tyrell, Christianity at the Crossroads
When I was an undergraduate reading various reconstructions of the historical Jesus, I could not help noticing a pattern. All of them start with some sort of declaration that they are going to approach the topic as disinterested historians, setting aside considerations of faith, ethics or beliefs of the Church. But, by the end, very few could resist some kind of assessment of the implications of this historical Jesus, and overwhelmingly they approved of what they had found there. So we have the “Spirit Man” of Marcus Borg, the Cynic sage of John Dominic Crossan, the Jewish miracle-worker and teacher of Geza Vermes, the zealot of SGF Brandon and more recently Reza Aslan, and many others. There are of course a few striking exceptions, such as Hector Avalos, whose book The Bad Jesus gives a hint at his thesis.
This is not a new observation, as the quote above, from a book published in 1909, illustrates, and the metaphor of the well is widely quoted. This does not stop it being true. I thought of this issue recently when attending a course run by Dr Robin Meyers, pastor and self-described “Christian Atheist” who advocates following Jesus rather than worshipping Christ. The Jesus he commits to following is, it turns out, the one largely discovered by scholars like Crossan and other members of the Jesus Seminar. It is a Jesus who is a philosopher and teacher, with a radical system of ethics, concern for social justice and definitely not considered in any way divine.
I have very few disagreements with the ethical implications Dr Meyers draws from this view of Jesus, but his approach raised two questions which I think are a challenge to any project of this type. Firstly, if you are committing yourself to following a particular historical reconstruction of Jesus, then you are something of a hostage to fortune if and when scholarly views about the historical Jesus change. Given that competent scholars have come up with a variety of reconstructions, it is also not entirely obvious why this reconstruction should be treated as authoritative and final. If we are going to follow Jesus, can we know for sure he wasn’t the revolutionary zealot? And what if some new evidence turned up which changed our views completely about the historical Jesus? Does that mean revising all our ideas about faith and discipleship?
The second problem I find genuinely baffling. Unless you are a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, which Dr Meyers certainly is not and neither are the vast majority of scholars, it is not clear to me why the historical Jesus, even if we could find him, should be treated as an authoritative teacher in all respects. By all means we can take inspiration from him, use whatever of his teachings we find useful or relevant. But we do not have to assume he was right about anything, let alone everything. And, as the variety of reconstructions makes clear, we are a long way from knowing anything much about the historical Jesus with great confidence, and most likely never will, so even knowing what the teachings were is problematic.
Just to put my own cards on the table, briefly, my personal view is that there was no historical Jesus at all – he was a heavenly figure later written into history, with teachings from various sources attaching to him. The Jesus of the gospels is a composite figure, which is why so many reconstructions are possible. I will not defend this view here – I have touched on it elsewhere and anyone who wants to know why I think this should read Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, which to my mind sets out this case in a way that has not been answered. But, as anyone who has read my other blog posts will know, I take great inspiration from certain teachings in the gospels, particularly the parables of the kingdom and the emphasis on the interdependence we all have. I do not know who originated these teachings, and it does not much matter to me. They have come down to us in the tradition and I will take from them what I find inspiring. This approach means we can divorce the intellectually interesting historical question of whether there was a historical Jesus and what he said from the more urgent present-day question of how we are to treat each other and live together on this planet. Muddling them together does not do justice to either question.