Does Jesus Matter?

When I became an atheist at 13 I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about who Jesus was anymore, and I could stop reading The Bible.  Around age 55, I returned to reading The Bible, to understand its place in history and to find out why so many people claimed it was so significant.  I’m still not religious, or even spiritual, but The Bible is like the world’s hardest jigsaw puzzle, you start to put a few pieces together and you get hooked.

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik describes the latest crop of books about Jesus in, “What Did Jesus Do?”  I highly recommend you taking the time to read this essay.

Gopnik claims ten books came out about Jesus in just one month.  I always figured Jesus was a real historical person, that we have very little actual evidence about him, and that there is a difference between Jesus the philosopher and Christ, the deity with infinite aspects.  I might be right or wrong about all points.  In fact, there are so many interpretations of who Jesus the real person was that I have to wonder if I shouldn’t write him off as unknowable.

The trouble is about 2 billion people want to define reality by their interpretation of Jesus.  Would reading all of these books that Adam Gopnik surveys put enough puzzle pieces together to produce a consistent view?  No, you won’t get a conclusive answer to who was the historical Jesus, but your sense of history and reality would be greatly expanded.  Here are links to some of the books he reviewed, and some others I ran across.

And there is no end in sight.  I put “Jesus” in the search box at Amazon, and then set the order to date, and there were over twenty pages of books scheduled to be published.  So I have to ask, should I even study a subject that produces so many opinions?

I know the faithful will say Jesus is someone I should study forever, but I don’t think that’s true.  He either had a definite message or he didn’t.  I also know the faithful will claim the definitive message is found by reading The Bible, but that’s also not true, because of the zillions of books trying to interpret The Bible.

And why try to understand Jesus and not all the other religious figures who have thousands of books written about them?  I do know from the many books I’ve already read, that the more one studies Jesus, the more one tries to understand him in a historical and political context and not as a metaphysical being.

In other words, if we can get a clear picture of the time in which he lived, it reveals much about what he supposedly said.  Studying history is fascinating, but why spend so much time on one person in one tiny portion of the globe for one very short period of time?  Wouldn’t it be more important, and even more spiritual, to study now?  Let’s assume Jesus was an astute observer of life, and his message was different from the teachers of his time, because he was revolutionary, choosing not to look backwards. 

All religions eventually come up with the golden rule.  The basic direction of religion is to inspire people to be better people.  Do we really need to know about people and their problems 2,000 years ago, when we have plenty of people and problems now?  My guess is people would be more Christian if they forget the past and just worked and studied in the present to improve their own lives and help other people around them.

The only real reason to study Jesus is to study biblical history and that eventually leads to studying ancient politics and sociology.  I think the reason why there is so much scholarship on the historical Jesus is because his life is such a delicious mystery.  And if you study biblical times you’ll eventually migrate into classical studies and the study of prehistory.  It’s a deep well to fall into.  Obsessive scholars even take up ancient Greek and Latin.  Eventually these studies turn into the psychoanalysis of the western mind.  Look what happened to Bart D. Ehrman.  He started off as a Evangelical Christian and now he’s almost a  pure historian.

I’m not the kind of atheist that wants to convert the faithful to the scientific worldview.  I don’t want to argue The Bible with others.  I can live with an indifferent reality, but most people need the comfort of answers, even if they are fantasies.   I wish the religious wouldn’t kill each other, or go on jihads and crusades, but I can’t do much about that.  Attacking their beliefs doesn’t do much good.  I do think I contemplate many of the same concepts Jesus is said to have meditated on, and seek many of his same goals, but I just don’t believe any of the stories written about him after he died. 

I’m willing to accept Jesus as a philosopher, say like Plato.  But does he matter?  Not to me.  But then neither does Plato.  In terms of leading a good life one only needs to endlessly explore the golden rule.  The study of history is like the study of science, it is meant to explore the nature of reality.  In this content Jesus is the most famous person in history, and understanding why does matter.

JWH – 5/25/10

12 thoughts on “Does Jesus Matter?”

  1. At my sophomoric age of 24 I won’t begin to pretend that I’ve got any form of answers or even a worthwhile viewpoint to offer on the subject, but being a faithful person who doesn’t care to adhere to a single “system” of worship has – for me anyway – freed me from the foolishness of church doctrine and group-inspired loopholes to study and appreciate faith in my own way. This certainly hasn’t given me any comfortable answers, but neither has any scientific method.

    In our own ways, we all keeping picking the apples off the tree because we’re curious for more, and why put an apple tree in the garden anyhow if it weren’t meant to be eaten from? Half the fun is the pursuit knowledge, if only because each answer always provides a thousand more questions. Any decent holy man or quantum physicist would agree, I should hope.

  2. Historical J…..”!?!

    The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and (“spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: http://www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with “30-99 C.E.”).
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period… in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you’ve been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

    1. Anders, I went and read a fascinating article about the Pharisees at Wikipedia, and I looked at the link you included. Your Ribi Yehoshua didn’t have an entry at Wikipedia – that might be something you’d want to work on.

      Actually, I’ve always wondered why the Christians kept the Old Testament because the New Testament is such a radical departure from the old. I guess they kept it for the ontology, but keeping it makes for a schizophrenic religion.

  3. James,

    I wish all atheists were like you. Reasonable. I can’t for the life of me work out why people have to get so angry and become personally abusive over differences of opinion. Jesus means everything to me. I am not confused or uncertain about who he is or what he does. The he only point I’d like to challenge you on is the golden rule thing. To me the universal appeal of such a rule is not the issue. The problem is how to do it consistently. That’s where Jesus comes into focus for me. As Paul the Apostle said, I can will to do what is right but I lack the power to carry it out (my paraphrase). Jesus is that power in my life.

    1. That is an interesting distinction, David. Maybe our views aren’t too far apart. I see Jesus as a philosopher of compassion. I divide religion up into different ages or philosophical stages. Religion 1.0 was how people thought in pre-history. Religion 2.0 is the Old Testament. I see Jesus as a revolutionary against Religion 2.0 and Christianity as the beginning of Religion 3.0. To me most Christians are still in the Religion 2.0 stage, and never made the transformation.

      So you see Jesus as your guide to transforming your life?

      I think a new transformation is beginning, maybe a time for Relgion 4.0. Jesus tried to convince people to respect other humans. Now we need to go beyond that and respect all other life forms. The golden rule applies to more than people, we need to love the Earth and its environment and everything that lives within it.

  4. I’m not sure I’d call Jesus a philosopher. I think Albert Schweitzer got it about right: he was an apocalyptic religious leader who expected the end of the world to come very soon. The Gospels retain elements of this in those problematic passages (since they didn’t come true) that state pretty plainly that some of the people he was then preaching to would see what’s now call the second coming—passages which Christians have had to make rather strained attempts to reinterpret.

    “. Now we need to go beyond that and respect all other life forms. The golden rule applies to more than people, we need to love the Earth and its environment and everything that lives within it.”

    Agreed. I’d also say we need to respect reason, critical thinking and skepticism a lot more and faith a whole lot less. When we have the technology to destroy the world institutions promoting irrational thinking and unwarranted beliefs becomes something we can’t afford.

  5. No, Jesus doesn’t really matter. No more or less than anyone else millenia dead.

    The people alive today claiming to be acting in his name, for myriad reasons and in myriad ways, surely do.

    1. You know Truleeyours, I don’t even remember writing “Does Jesus Matter?” I had to go reread it. I haven’t read The New Testament completely through yet, but hope to get to it soon on audio. But I did read Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman and it gave a very good overview. I feel whoever Jesus really was has been obscured by the gospels and epistles. I tend to think he was a radical Jew that was very smart and had some revolutionary ideas that didn’t sit well with the traditional Jews. Then after his death his followers reinvented him over and over again, so many times that it’s impossible to really know the original Jesus.

      By the way, I like your blog Truleeyours. I’m not sure I agree with what you say here http://vinesandbrambles.wordpress.com/about/ but it’s interesting. I like the comparison to 4D chess, because time is really a factor. I’m not sure all the writers of the books of the New Testament agreed with each other, nor am I sure the editors of the New Testament really understood what they were doing – so it might not be an exact puzzle to solve. My guess is they collected what they thought were the “best of” Christian writing at the time and made it into a book knowing that it wasn’t consistent. Have you read Forged by Bart D. Ehrman? It’s rather illuminating about the competition of Christian philosophy and how it evolved.

      1. Yes, I can recall some 4-D effects. Barabbas is a good example. But in my “About” I meant four levels. Change now made. Thanks for alerting me.

  6. I truly appreciate your view on Jesus Christ. I also appreciate your logic and demeanor on such a controversial matter. In my opinion (admittedly Christian) the reason Jesus matters is because (according to Torah) the fundamental price for disobedience to the law is death. This required an animal sacrifice to atone for the sins of man. Jesus (truly Yehoshua in Hebrew) taught that it was impossible for man to keep the ten commandments, without YHVH (Jehovah – God) intervening. That intervention was to show man how to live a correct life by the law, studying the word of God and living it out in compassion for each other. His life and death proved His lineage to the promised Hebrew Meschiach (Messiah / Christ) and was a literal sacrifice for the price of man’s sins. To accept Jesus as the sacrifice that you know to be the penalty of the sins you are responsible for in life is to accept God’s salvation and His gift of everlasting life. Admittedly, not everyone in this world would recognize God or a higher power of any sort to have dominion over their life, nor would they recognize all the same actions as right or wrong. This is why we have thousands of protestant denominations, the split from the catholic church and the denial of Yehoshua’s teaching by 1st century pharisees and sadducees. One interesting book to read is a condensed collection of the teachings and sayings of Jesus called, “What Jesus Said.” by H.M.S. Richards. It’s an old book but the anologies and the direct parallels to Jesus’ teachings and parables is astoundingly simple to understand. For another historic account of Jesus read “The Antiquity of the Jews and Wars of the Jews” by Flavious Josephus. These accounts are astounding! As a 1st Century, Jewish historian to Ceaser he writes of several separate accounts of the life of Yehoshua. Admittedly, he does not think Jesus is the Christ, but he does write of His followers, actions and miracles as well as those of James (brother of Jesus) and John the Baptist.

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