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.
- Jesus: A 21st-Century Biography by Paul Johnson
- Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman
- Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite by Michael White
- Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years by Philip Jenkins
- The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
- Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch
- Jesus the Terrorist by Peter Cresswell
- Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Verhoeven
- A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State by Charles Freeman
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