It’s almost a certainty that anything you think you know about Jesus is wrong because what you know has gone through two thousand years of constant reinterpretation with additional imagined added facts through suppositions and speculation. And if by chance you held just one right fact, it would be impossible to know which one it was because there are almost an infinity of possible imagined facts about Jesus to confuse you.
I’ve read a lot of books about Jesus over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for us to know the truth about what Jesus was like. Absolutely impossible. Every book I’ve read gave the author’s imagined interpretation of what Jesus was like based on all the books they had read, each of which was also an interpretation. Since Jesus left no writings on his own, and all the gospels were written long after the fact, by people who got their information from hand-me-down sources, we have no foundation of verifiable knowledge to work with. In fact, each of the four gospels are different, written at different times, with new interpretations and added material.
All this is obvious, and I should have concluded it decades ago, but the nature of Bible study makes it fun to try to figure out the truth. Everyone wants to solve the puzzle and is only too eager to add their interpretation with new speculated possibilities. Just look at how many early Christian sects there were, and how much the Catholic Church has changed over time, and how many differ protestant denominations there are, with their own splinter groups. Every church has a different view of Jesus, and so does every human being. There are billions of different Jesuses – will the real one please stand up. It reminds me of that old short story by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”
All this became more obvious to me when I was reading Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton. Now, I’m an atheist, so you might be wondering why I’m reading a book about Jesus. The origins of Christianity is a minor interest of mine, as a study of history, like how some people study classical Greece for a hobby. I was intrigued by Rabbi Jesus because the book claimed to have a deep understanding of Judaism of the times, and to use current anthropological knowledge about the time period Jesus lived, to create a biography that jived with the Gospels. Here’s a quote from Craig L. Blomberg in his review of the book:
There are strengths to Chilton’s work to be sure. Prompted by his editors he has eschewed formal, detailed footnoting for brief references to key literature for each chapter and has written in highly readable, even gripping prose. His descriptions of the customs and geography of Israel bring the stories of Jesus alive as few other writers have done. His portrayal of the probable thoughts, motives and behavior of such characters as Caiaphas and Pilate is more vivid and compelling than any I have read. Over and over again, one senses that one is seeing the Jewish milieu of Jesus more clearly and accurately than in countless other “lives” that have been produced over the centuries. But when one asks what Chilton actually claims Jesus to have said and done, in what sequence, for what reasons and by what power, most of the answers are at best speculative, without the kind of defense and documentation to make one convinced of them. At worst, they simply seem baseless. In a classic understatement, Chilton recognizes in his foreword that he “will doubtless make both Jews and Christians apprehensive” with his portrait of Christ (p. xxi).
Chilton is able to paint a very vivid picture of Jesus with lots of links to related established knowledge, yet in the end it’s all speculation even though the book is very convincing. If you haven’t read very widely with similar books, this book would be very persuasive in making you think you knew Jesus better.
Another recent controversial biography is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Aslan is a scholar who takes another approach to finding the truth about Jesus. That’s the game here. Use all the available knowledge you can to paint a supposedly accurate portrait of Jesus. But just read what Wikipedia said about the book:
Dale Martin writes in The New York Times that although Aslan is not a scholar of ancient Christianity and does not present “innovative or original scholarship”, the book is entertaining and “a serious presentation of one plausible portrait of the life of Jesus of Nazareth”. He faults Aslan for presenting early Christianity as being simply divided into a Hellenistic, Pauline form on the one hand, and a Jewish, Jamesian form on the other. Martin says that this repeats 19th-century German scholarship which now is mostly rejected. He also says that recent scholarship has dismissed Aslan’s view that it would be implausible that any man like Jesus in his time and place would be unmarried, or could be presented as a “divine messiah”. Despite these faults, Martin praises Zealot for maintaining good pacing, simple explanations for complicated issues, and notes for checking sources.
Elizabeth Castelli, writing in The Nation, finds that Aslan largely ignores the findings in textual studies of the New Testament, and relies too heavily on a selection of texts, like Josephus, taking them more or less at face value (which no scholar of the period would do). Near her dismissive conclusion, she writes: “Zealot is a cultural production of its particular historical moment—a remix of existing scholarship, sampled and reframed to make a culturally relevant intervention in the early twenty-first-century world where religion, violence and politics overlap in complex ways. In this sense, the book is simply one more example in a long line of efforts by theologians, historians and other interested cultural workers.”
The summary of these two reviewers shows that speculation about Jesus is a kind of academic game to scholars, but to religious people, knowing who Jesus was is very serious. These two books give us two different Jesuses. Both are from scholars claiming to work with the latest knowledge about the past. Both books seem to present reasonable results. If you read a hundred scholarly books about Jesus and they all invent a different Jesus, who is right? Do you just average the 100 and assume Jesus was something like all of them? Or assume he was like none of them? If it was possible to extrapolate what Jesus was like from current knowledge don’t you think most of those 100 books would produce a standard Jesus?
Most of the faithful ignore modern books and just study The New Testament. But if you study New Testament scholars like Bart D. Ehrman and his latest books you’ll only feel doubtful about what is actually supposed to be the word of God.
I’m quite a fan of Ehrman having read Jesus, Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus, and Forged, and was about to buy and read How Jesus Became God, when I stopped to think about what I’m writing here in this essay. Why read another book about Jesus? Well, this one promises to be a history of the history of Jesus, so it’s not quite the same, but I’m now asking myself should I give up even studying the history of this whole era. To me studying the early centuries of Christianity is like studying how half the world went insane believing a massive fantasy about a guy they can’t even know, but think they know through the lies they believe are the truth. It’s like driving past the largest car wreck ever and trying not to look.
One reason I keep reading books about Bible history is I’m trying to completely exorcise Christianity from my brain. Forced early exposure to Christianity caused mind-washing at the lowest levels of my brain and I’m trying to deprogram myself. Every time I read another Ehrman book I delete a few more lines of old code running in my head.
I keep wondering when is humanity going to be free of the evils of religious fantasies? Then I hear about the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq and realize probably never. Many atheists hope by studying religion they can explain it’s illogical nature to its believers. But would any amount of facts convert Iraqis away from their war? Would any number of lectures convert evangelicals to science?
I’m starting to feel that completely ignoring religion is my best course. I’ve sufficiently deprogrammed myself that I’m now free of such thinking. And I don’t feel obligated to deprogram others—I think that’s something you must do for yourself. Wouldn’t I be better off mentally, and more productive if I studied other areas of history? I think society has a sense of guilt about knowing all history, or a sense of obligation. But how much history do we really need? Wouldn’t I be better off studying the history of science and mathematics?
I think I’m over trying to figure out who Jesus was for whatever reason. It’s all speculation. Jesus is impossible to know. If only they could invent a time machine to go back and filmed his life, then we’d have the answer, but that ain’t going to happen.
JWH – 6/25/14
13 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Know Jesus”
Or most likely, there never was a historical figure Jesus, and the Jesus story was just a myth/allegory, like most other stories of gods and heroes.
The purported career of Jesus did not occur during a time and place of isolation and illiteracy — the Roman empire was a vast bureaucracy much given to written histories yet there are apparently no contemporary accounts of this person and his followers or even any second-hand references to such accounts . It’s a bit much to swallow, even if you are merely positing an important historical figure who became the basis for a myth, as many people believe was true of King Arthur for instance.
If I were to ask seven different people to describe you they would give you seven different versions (yes, there would be some similarities). If I were to ask you to describe yourself what would be described would be subtly different in key ways than what each of them would describe. Which one is objectively true? Arguments about historical truths are similar and equally ridiculous. At a certain point what people thought he was and how people reinterpreted a historical figure is a more productive endeavor — a “true” interpretation is obviously impossible and, well, doesn’t exist.
The difference between modern people, and ancient people like Jesus, is we have physical evidence – photographs, films, videos, diaries, journals, letters, essays, books, etc. The recent biography of LBJ is a good example. We can never really know anyone – even our spouses – or even ourselves – perfectly.
(I know about primary sources — I am a historian — hehe)
Really, what kind? What area?
Medieval, advanced (nearly complete) PhD student. I won’t divulge the particulars 😉
I realized that I responded to the wrong comment — my apologies!
Never mind, I did not. Lesson learned, do not respond to messages via that little box in the upper right 😉
If I remember my Arthur C. Clarke correctly I wonder how far along we are to printing out all the names of God or do we have a ways to go before the stars begin disappearing? Actually I think the opposite is more likely – the longer we take the more names we will invent until the search collapses under its own weight.
I enjoy Ehrman and find it interesting he operates from inside the bible-belt of NC where I’ve lived for 26 years and experienced up close a very narrow-minded view by the natives about their beliefs.
I wish more Christians would read Ehrman – not because I want to disprove their faith, but let them see there is that we can know and that which we can’t. What we need is Christianity 3.0 (assuming Protestantism was 2.0) where some modern theologian streamlines the essence of compassionate philosophy and jettisons the bullshit.
That’s not a bad idea. Modern liberal Christianity would form a great basis for a Christianity 3.0–it accepts the findings of science, focuses on forgiveness and acceptance, and is mostly adaptable to societal change.
The Christians could really help themselves if they embraced science and diversity and advocated social compassion and environmental stewardship. Instead of promising heaven after death, they should get back to the heaven on Earth concept. Jesus has been revised so many times in the last two thousand years it wouldn’t matter if he was completely remade again. As an atheist I like to think of Jesus as a philosopher of compassion since I don’t believe in anything metaphysical.
I tend to agree. I think (or at least hope) that the heartless fire-and-brimstone intolerance of conservative Christianity (plus its bull-in-a-china-shop foray into politics) is going to backfire on it in a big way.