The Historical Jesus

This is a post that’s taken a long time coming. I’ve written in several times, and still am not 100% happy with it. Still, here we go…

A Prelude

In the archaeology of ancient Israel there are two famous schools of thought. The minimalists contend that there is no evidence of the kingdom of Israel described in the majority of the Old Testament. Most minimalists claim that the OT only gains some semblance of historicity when at or after the time of the exile. By contrast, maximalists would claim that, for example, the kingdom of David and possibly even the period of the Judges were broadly historical.

So it doesn’t take a scholar to see there’s a continuum there. From believing that the bible is historical from C12 BCE, through to believing it is only feasible from about C5, say (there are obviously far more extreme positions than this, including full biblical inerrancy, but few if any scholars would argue for them). But it sometimes doesn’t get treated as a continuum. Instead you get each side painting caricatures of the other, pushing them back as far as possible to try to make their position untenable. Most OT specialists I know are pretty sensible about the reality being in the middle (more towards the minimalist end, it so happens), but there’s something about the labels that brings out tribalism and unhelpful debate. This, unfortunately is the way of the agon.

The Jesus Continuum

There is a similar continuum in understanding the historicity of Jesus. At one end is the view of some confessional scholars who think the gospels are largely historically accurate. They may want to diminish some miracles, or they may reject certain passages (the dead rising in sympathy with Jesus’s resurrection seems a popular one), but broadly they are historical.

On the other hand there are a growing number of folks who want to insist that the gospels are pure fiction. One might compare them to the legend cycles of King Arthur, for example. This extreme is also rare among scholars, but is the darling of atheists online, it seems.

Most scholars, and in fact most thinking people generally (excluding the people who’s only thoughts on it are what they’ve been told to think), are not at the extremes.

For example, I believe that there are reasonable chunks of the gospel that are likely to be historically accurate. Why? Based purely on the balance of probability.

It could be that there was no historical Jesus, sure, but it is more likely that there was a preacher around whom the mythology coalesced. Stories that seem perfectly reasonable, culturally and psychologically, got reinterpreted, emboldened, and surrounded by flights of fancy.

On the other hand, it could be that there is a God who miraculously took human form to pay an atonement to himself to prevent himself from punishing his creation for the sin that he programmed into them from the start. Sure, it is possible. But it is more likely that the Jesus movement got embroiled in endless theological debates that wrapped ever more far-fetched layers of dogma around the words of a Galilean preacher.

So I’m in the continuum, and much more towards the minimalist side. It seems obvious to me that a large amount of the NT is fantasy based on scientific ignorance and conventions of mythology. But to claim that there is nothing in it that traces back to any historical figure; that it was all invented from nothing? That seems a more extraordinary claim. Faced with the scant evidence we have, it is safest, I think, to take the tentative position I have. But the evidence is so scant, that I would admit to finding quite a broad range of the continuum possible.

But what happens when talking about the Historical Jesus online, is that folks from both sides want to paint you into the opposite corner. So those folks who are on the mythological extreme want to paint me as a credulous, wannabe believer. Those on the other end would claim I don’t believe Jesus even existed. This is internet debate here, remember, not academic debate.

This has an interesting effect on some scholars. They seem to be somewhere else in the continuum than where they really are. Take folks like James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix, or Mark Goodacre at NT Blog. Reading their academic work, I am pretty convinced they are not far from me in the continuum, towards the minimalist end. As, in fact, are almost all critical biblical scholars I know (I don’t, it has to be said, know any biblical theologians well – I get the sense they are further along). But James in particular has expended a lot of energy trying to defend his position from the mythicists, so he is perceived as defending some variety of orthodoxy. Mark has an unswervingly common-sense attitude to questions of historicity, but clearly is one of the ‘establishment’ if you’re of the Mythicist persuasion. On the other hand in “The End of Biblical” Studies, Hector Avalos (who I am almost certain is also pretty close to me on the continuum) sails his rhetorical ship in the other direction, in order to make the starkest distinction between himself and those at the maximal end.

But I’ve also come across folks who call themselves “Mythicists” but basically agree with my position. They want to claim that the Jesus Christ portrayed in orthodox Christian doctrine is a myth (well, duh!). You can believe that and be far more to the maximal side than most biblical scholars. If that is Mythicism then we’re all Mythicists.

The labelling and name calling is a shame because, as for the archaeology of the ancient near east, the desire to seek out and exploit labels hampers people getting a clear sense of your position. And they hide the fact that the vast majority of critical scholars of the NT are really pretty close together.

NB: I couldn’t fit this observation in the main text, but it is worth noting that the phrase “Historical Jesus” has been used for scholarly efforts to reconstruct a complete character of Jesus largely excluding miracles and other anachronism. This places scholars such as John Dominic Crossan (and the Jesus Seminar more generally) much further towards the maximal end than me. They share most of my disbelief in the supernatural elements of the story, but think that they can construct a coherent picture of what Jesus was really like. I think they are mistaken. And I think it is obvious they are when you see that none of them agree what Jesus was really like. That is not to undervalue their scholarship, however, because I think a lot of it (particularly some of the analyses of phrases or stories that should *not* be considered authentic) are very useful.



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46 responses to “The Historical Jesus

  1. Great post! I really like how you highlight the way scholars like McGrath (or anyone else for that matter) can get painted into a corner. I suspect emotions get involved too much.

    For me the value of the minimalist position on HJ is not in its likelihood of being true, but rather that the minimalist arguments highlight the weaknesses of the arguments for the literal historic veracity of the new testament. It really does come down to probabilities and what seem to us reasonable possibilites. Which does tend to move things closer to the middle of the HJ continuum.

  2. Ian

    Thanks attr! I’m chuffed you liked it.

    Yes, I couldn’t agree more. As I said in the footnote, that process isn’t just for folks at the minimal extreme either. I liked Crossan’s dismantling of the apocalyptic layers around Jesus, for example. I don’t agree with his conclusion (or at least, I don’t see how one could have any confidence in his conclusion – the conclusion itself seems plausible) but his arguments are enlightening.

    If you think about it as a continuum, then one could imagine marking each location along with how strongly one finds that position. Then someone’s belief would be smeared out along the line, more in some places than others. And then, I suspect, you’d *really* see how much common ground there is between critical scholars.

  3. I’d never read this perspective before, or encountered the term “minimalist” used in this context.

    This bit is very quotable:

    “On the other hand, it could be that there is a God who miraculously took human form to pay an atonement to himself to prevent himself from punishing his creation for the sin that he programmed into them from the start. ”

    Thank you for the fascinating read.

  4. Thank you Ian for a very thoughtful and measured post. Bottom line is probably that we can not know about Jesus with any certainty. Depending on your religious orientation, that may be easy or hard to swallow.

    [Disclaimer: I am not a Christian] I am curious about the breed known as ‘Liberal Christians’. For the most part, I find that they consider Jesus of Nazareth something like ‘the greatest spiritual exemplar’ even if they have backed off the miracles and son of God things… But questioned why they put Jesus in this position, they often start to look a bit nervous… What is it that can reasonably be attributed to Jesus that makes him the tops in the spiritual rankings? They don’t have any good answers. When we look at what can reasonably be credited to the historical Jesus, it’s OK, but really a bit thin…

    This experience makes me think that the whole Christian tradition tends to unravel if you insist on any historicity. It means that ‘I believe in the religion of Jesus rather than the religion of Christ’ really has no legs. Does this mean a drive toward the extremes? Must it be either fundamentalism or nothing?

  5. Ian

    @Chas Welcome to the blog! Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you liked it. If Luke (a regular commentator here and a liberal Christian) swings by this post, he’d probably have me for that cheap shot of a line and point out how much more sophisticated real atonement theories are. But still, I’ve always thought of the doctrine of atonement as basically bonkers.

    @Andy. Welcome too you too, sir!

    I agree with what you say about the tenability of a religion based on the historicity of Jesus. Particularly once you let go of the naive (but at least internally consistent) view that the bible is just literally true.

    Liberal Christianity, in my experience, is quite a cultural thing, rather than a doctrinal thing. For example James McGrath, who I mentioned in the post, calls himself a Christian because it was in a Christian context that he had his most profound religious experiences. So I think among less historically sophisticated liberal Christians, putting Jesus on a pedestal is then a kind of knee-jerk reaction rather than one that comes of careful consideration. Jesus is obviously important culturally, so must be intrinsically important. To reject the importance of Jesus is to reject the culture.

    There’s a good book called “American Jesus” by Stephen Prothero which traces this hegemony and the way it invades other religious cultures.

    As for the drive for the extremes. That, I’m afraid, is what keeps me up at night. It worries me about your religious tradition too.

    But again I see it as slightly more sociological than theological. Branding is about consistency and distinctiveness. One of the reasons for the extremes, I think, is they make branding easier. And branding is (as allergic as some in the church are to the word) the most powerful tool we have devised for focussing groups of people.

    So if you start a church and say “hey, anything is allowable, you can do whatever, be yourself, do what works”. It is fundamentally less brandable than saying “we are the X, we are not like the world, we believe Y and do Z”. Product marketers try to remove the apathetic middle. The ideal product is one that lots of people love, and some people hate, because the extremes help polarise and motivate the middle.

    That’s not to say I don’t think it can be done. But I do think fundamentalism has sociological power, as well as the theological power you rightly pointed out.

  6. As for the drive for the extremes. That, I’m afraid, is what keeps me up at night. It worries me about your religious tradition too.

    Don’t worry about us! The Unitarian approach is to demand a lot from ourselves regarding action, without demanding theology or acceptance of particular myths. (We have been called the ‘deeds, not creeds’ religion.) We are free to be inspired by all of the many wonderful myths, philosophy, and artistic expression that humankind has created and – happily – free to ignore the offensive, repressive, and irrelevant bits.

  7. Ian

    Sorry, my comment could be completely misconstrued.

    It worries me about your religious tradition because you’re *not* like that! I realise the phrase made it sound the opposite of what I meant!

    Because in the UK, unitarianism (which I do see as a force for good) is in steady decline. I hope that your kick for church growth works, but I do worry that your voice will be drowned out by the imported right-wing evangelicalism of your motherland!

  8. It is indeed in decline, although my congregation in north London has grown 1,300% in the past eight years (albeit from a very low low). I think there is a place for ultra-liberal religion, which is essentially communities of people exploring together to find ways to better themselves and the world. Young people seem to get it, which gives me some hope for the future.

    And yes, that right-wing madness from the US is very, very worrisome.

    Thanks for your blog. It’s great!

    [Edited by Ian – Corrected a typo in the URL of Andy’s Church]

  9. @ (rev) Andy
    Your group sounds interesting to visit, but my wife and I don’t fit in Unitarian churches because they are so political here in the USA — so, Democrat (and we aren’t). Sounds like you guys got a little of that going. Perhaps you can count on one hand the Tories in your group. Here, when we visited, everyone could point out the one or two Republicans in the group. And they’d always say, “But they are nice, but a little outspoken.” 😆

    @ Ian

    Superb essay, Ian. Fun weaving together of caveats. I could actually understand the essay because, over the last 1 1/2 of writing a blog and reading others, I have run into these categories and have had to struggle to get them clear in my head. When I left Christianity, I was not aware of all those subtle spins. Nicely summed up — and yet you still took a stance of sorts. But you are right, the categories can artificially stop us from learning from each other and exploring our positions.

    But I did get a kick out of your phrase: “Balance of Probability” –> that expression sounds so substantial and so convincing — so rhetorical. Yet the subjective unpacking may make it a huge debate. I wonder if Vridar will visit. For I imagine he has this same sense of “Balance of Probability”. Such a cute phrase.

  10. Ian

    You’ve got to remember, Sabio, that the conservative party’s policies in the UK are no further to the right than the policies of the Democratic party in the US. On the other hand I had you down as a libertarian…

    Do you know the Nolan model of political belief? If you’re a libertarian, you’re just a liberal who rejects government interference in economic matters. Or alternatively a conservative who rejects government regulation of social matters. Or an anarchist with a belief in bigger government.

    Yes, “Balance of Probability” is intended to exude authority which is a sham covering for “I’ve decided that this is what I believe” :). Though I do have EXCELLENT post-hoc rationalizations for my beliefs.

  11. Yes, I am familiar with Nolan’s Chart. Yes, the libertarian label fits me pretty well. Your description is pretty accurate — for sorting out chickens, that is. I won’t quibble. And us libertarian-leaning folks don’t fit too well here in American Unitarian churches. We have gone to 3 or 4 to see if we could fit it. Went through a class in one of them. But:
    a) pew
    b) hymns
    c) sermons
    d) collection plates
    e) ministers
    Jeeeee, they didn’t throw out enough of Christianity!! 🙂
    Give me a plain sitting in a Zen temple. I even tried Quakers, it invites weirdos who ruin the silence telling us all about how the spirit moves them — yuck !

    Believe me, I have read your writings and seen your thinking — I am sure your post-hoc rationalizations are EXCELLENT ! 😉

  12. Ian

    I was being facetious about libertarianism. The problem with the Nolan model is that it was built by a libertarian, and so tends to make everyone libertarian. I’m not libertarian, but it told me I was.

    I agree about UU. I do feel at home in UU partly because it references the traditions I know and love. But it would be good to be more broad in praxis as well as theology.

    Quakers are still Christians, however. Theologically. They are creed-light, but in my experience, still think that God exists. I know quite a few atheist UUs.

  13. Marxist Atheists vs. Anarchist Christians — it would be tough to choose who I’d want for neighbors. Actually, it would be easy.

  14. Ian

    Now there’s a mental image to go to bed to!

  15. wow – I wouldn’t have slept if I’d known that a bunch of Unitarian talk would go on!

    Your group sounds interesting to visit, but my wife and I don’t fit in Unitarian churches because they are so political here in the USA — so, Democrat (and we aren’t). Sounds like you guys got a little of that going.

    Sabio – it’s true what you say about Unitarian politics. Political conservatives are rare in Unitarian congregations. In the US, this is very much about social issues: conservatives tend to restrict freedoms (abortion, gay rights, etc.) and are beholden to the religious right. But – as is true also in the UK – it is also a function of how (and whether?) we aim to reduce the disparities of wealth in our society. It seems that the liberals focus more on this. Religiously, we are also likely to assume good intent wherever possible, so we’re less likely to view people on benefits as cheats and immigrants as dangerous than conservative.

    I’m simply saying these are typical Unitarian perspectives, which mean that we lean left. I hope that we don’t reflexively lean left without examination of the issues, but without more conservatives in our midst, we are certainly somewhat unsympathetic to right-leaning perspectives. So, Sabio, if you could bear it, you could certainly open some eyes to different ways of thinking?

    (By the way, have you seen this talk by Jonathan Haidt on TED talks? It is an interesting take on liberal vs. conservative perspectives.)

    a) pew
    b) hymns
    c) sermons
    d) collection plates
    e) ministers
    Jeeeee, they didn’t throw out enough of Christianity!!

    Yes, Unitarianism grew out of Christianity and, while our content, emphasis, and ethos, are very different, much form continues to borrow from that protestant tradition. I grew up in the liberal/reform Jewish tradition and have been very anti-religious most of my life. I know how pews and hymns and collection plates feel to many people and I really regret that these things can be a barrier.

    I often think about how I would design things if I were starting from scratch… We’d probably still sing together, we’d still have to take donations as we have no other sources of income to run the place, we’d have no pews (and one of my two buildings does not), and services/gatherings would be structured differently. We would certainly still have ministers! Whether you call them ministers/managers/leaders/CEOs or whatever, an organization needs some kind of active professional leadership [admitting my complete and enormous bias here as a professional minister!] Without ministers, Unitarians become more like Quakers and you’ve already said what you think about that system!

    Importantly, you say “they didn’t throw out enough of Christianity.” Unitarianism is non-hierarchical and democratic. Each congregation is free therefore to change and evolve as it sees fit. The “they” is whoever shows up. It is a religion on a journey – far from the Christianity of its birth but far also from the shape it will take in the future…

    Sorry for going on so long! Clearly, a topic about which I am very passionate!

    If you’d like to get a feel for what we’re about, please do check out our web site.

  16. Ian

    Thanks for the link to the TED talk, Andy. Very interesting.

    we’d have no pews

    I know several Anglican ministers who have had harder and longer battles over the removal of pews than anything else in their ministry.

    we aim to reduce the disparities of wealth in our society

    Its always curious to me that it gets phrased in those terms, rather than in terms of raising the out of poverty and improving the standard of living of those at the bottom of the income curve. Would it be a more just society if everyone lived in poverty? If not then disparity is not the issue. But it is significant phraseology for the political left.

    Anyway, one of us should really run a post on politics if we want to encourage this kind of discussion.

    Each congregation is free therefore to change and evolve as it sees fit.

    I’ve heard that UU is pretty diverse in the US. But my sense is that in the UK there is still an overwhelming sense in most congregations that the Unitarian church is part of a tradition of Christian dissent, which in turn traces its spiritual ancestry through non-conformism. Your own church might be different Andy, but I get the sense that that is the case in, for example, the large swathe of South Wales Unitarian Chapels that were founded around the time of the great revival.

  17. Ian – Yes. The balance between ‘liberal Christian’ and more ‘universalistic’ Unitarian congregations is different in the US and UK. More universalistic in the US and more liberal Christian in the UK. Important to note though that the liberal Christian sort is a Unitarian (i.e. non-trinitarian) type of religion that rejects original sin, miracles, vicarious atonement, the resurrection, etc. In other words, it admires Jesus – the man – as the greatest spiritual exemplar but not as God. It might be fairer to call it monotheism with a Christian vernacular.

    There are good growing examples of both sorts. My sense, however, is that the future – at least in urban areas – belongs to the open, diverse universalistic strand.

  18. Hey Andy

    Thanks for the notes. I imagine you won’t be replying for a while because I am writing this Sunday morning.

    (1) I wrote something on Haidt’s video here. You’ll see my political rating via his test there. Did you take it?

    (2) Occ. in the USA there are UU groups without ministers, I hear.

    (3) Is “Andy” a common name for Jewish boys?

    (4) The Pew issue Ian mentions is hilarious. I visited a missionary in rural India which had no power and no roads but the church had pews while the rest of the village houses all sat on floors. That church lasted 30 years until the missionaries left (cancer) and the church (along with its school) immediately fell apart.

    (5) I strongly agree with Ian on the “disparities” comment — I heard that line all the time at UU churches. That is an example of the political ideology subtext which had nothing to do with religion. To me UU was a place for democrats to feel holy about their politics — kind of like the conservatives find in Evangelicalism.

  19. Hi Sabio

    (1) I wrote something on Haidt’s video here. You’ll see my political rating via his test there. Did you take it?

    Haven’t yet. Will do!

    (2) Occ. in the USA there are UU groups without ministers, I hear.

    This is true, but mostly because the groups can’t afford to pay them. Some groups prefer it that way and (I’ll probably get hate mail for this) but I think they are more for ‘comforting the comfortable’ and think that ministers might rock the boat.

    (3) Is “Andy” a common name for Jewish boys?

    Well, it’s not from Hebrew Scripture, but my mom liked it! Liberal/Reform Jews don’t seem to mind using names that are not traditional Jewish…

    (5) I strongly agree with Ian on the “disparities” comment — I heard that line all the time at UU churches.

    Well, we may disagree here. I do think that the wealth disparities in western society have a lot to do with systemic injustice. It is a system where the rich get richer… It’s not a level playing field. I’m not advocating a communistic leveling of wealth, but an equal opportunity leveling of the game…

    Now… off to lead the morning service!

  20. Thanx Andy !

    I agree there is much, much systemic injustice and have resisted it and lost jobs over it. But I don’t go as far as many of my liberal friends. I have friends who are very bright and their kids are genetically favored over my kids to be very bright. I think it is good for our society to allow them to rise higher in many ways. Likewise with other skills or physical attributes.

    I also believe in kindness and compassion but don’t want the government trying to “level the playing field” by lowering standards and stopping competition. But I do want the government stopping injustice. We just may differ on what we call “injustice”.

    Hope the service went well. If I am in London, I will try to remember your group and visit! I hope to visit Ian some day.

  21. Ian

    A priest, a Buddhist and an Atheist walk into a bar…

    You’d be more than welcome to come and see your ancestral land, Sabio! Beunydd croesawa i mewn gwrymiau!

  22. LOL !

    You threw me with that ancient word for my motherland!

    And likewise, should you come this way:

    Fy nghartref yn eich cartref !

  23. Ian


    I should add that although I can figure out bits of Welsh analytically. I don’t speak welsh, so apologies to any welsh speakers passing by 🙂

  24. Fascinating discussion going on here, chaps! Andy, do you know Chris Hudson in Belfast? He is the minister of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Belfast, many congregations of which are effectively Unitarian. He’s a great guy, and has some excellent ideas about how to effect change in Belfast, particularly in the anti-sectarian and anti-homophobia arenas. To be honest, Unitarianism is (as I see it) not very far removed (if removed at all) from some of the ideas I have been (slowly and with low volume) trying to develop at The Church of Jesus Christ Atheist. With a few twists, of course 🙂

    In relation to the theme of the post, the historicity of Jesus, I admit that I waver a bit. I’ll push the boat out, and suggest that we really can’t rely on very much at all, prior to the final visit to Jerusalem, culminating in the crucifixion. I think the triumphal entry (Mark’s version, not Matthew’s double-donkey lark! – that’s just silly, and proof positive that “Matthew” was majorly embellishment-happy) is probably historical, if only for the reason that *every* would-be Messiah did this; they all knew the Zechariah prophecy, so if you wanted to stake a claim as the Messiah, you had to get an ass.

    The temple tantrum fits neatly into this, and despite the pleas of the apologists, I think this would have precisely been reason enough (coupled with the Palm Sunday incident) to bring him to the attention of Pilate, and the dismissive “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” nailed to the cross would have been *exactly* how Pilate would have played this situation – he probably did it every other week. So all of this just fits very nicely with probable historical precedent, but for it to be entirely mythic (while possible) or fictional, as a novella that got misinterpreted as fact (can’t rule that out!), seems a little far-fetched.

    Indeed, I would even be prepared to countenance an empty tomb, although to me the evidence from Mark seems very strong that what happened was his family (who did not get along well with the “Disciples” – who were probably a relatively insignificant troupe of groupies who thought they were more important than they really were) simply took the body from the temporary morgue back to Galilee for burial there. “Go to Galilee, and there you shall see him”. Simples.

    It is interesting that Matthew then embellishes this with stories of a guard on the tomb, an earthquake, and sympathetic resurrections. It is odd that most scholars reject the zombies, but are quite prepared to accept Matthew’s other fibs.

    However, those are just a couple of my little pet theories (all gleaned from others – none my own work!). It’ll remain hypothetical until we find Jesus’s ossuary in Capernaum, not Jerusalem [which effectively means for ever] 😉

  25. Ian

    Cool, thanks Shane. I agree with some of what you say. And those are the kind of tradeoffs in interpretation that I do recognize. Groovy.

  26. Ian, are you by any chance participating in a last supper (before bedtime) of bread and wine, like I am? 😉 Actually, the Reasonable Doubts podcaster guys had a really good episode on the historicity of Jesus, and I’m jiggered if I can find the link. I simply recall that it was very good, and the upshot was pretty much as you have been suggesting (it could have been way back).

    I completely identify with the polarisation between “mythicist”, “minimalist” and “maximalist” positions – it is not helpful for debate for people to be lumped into boxes like this; it virtually guarantees that debate will be dominated by the genetic fallacy (where an argument’s worth is judged by its source, rather than by the force of the argument itself).

    I found Geza Vermes’s book “Jesus the Jew” to be fascinating, but I’m not sure how far on that gets us. But from my own position as an “Atheistic Christian”, interesting as all the “historical Jesus” business is, the important thing is the *story*, and what we can learn from (and bring to – this is dynamic and growing) it, before handing it on. It’s not something to get hooked up on; for example, no-one argues about the historical Goldilocks, but we can use the story to hang important lessons on, regarding porridge, regression to the mean, respect for other people’s (or bears’) property, and how the weak frequently suffer from compound injustices that are never satisfactorily resolved. We can use Goldilocks without having to believe that it happened, or that bears even *like* porridge.

    Similarly, we can use the story of “Christ” (I would probably avoid Saul Paulus here – he’s damaged goods) as a useful hook to hang important humanistic messages. A mnemonic narrative, perhaps.

    Hmmm. Come to think of it, I think I should re-work Goldilocks into a parable told by Jesus. Watch out for it on CJCA! 🙂

  27. Ian

    I’m on vacation, actually, enjoying some late night web-browsing from the unexpected free wi-fi in the cabin.

    I can’t get on with atheistic Christianity because, unfortunately, I think Jesus (APINT*) was a bit of a dick. Quite often in fact. If you read (the correct) bits of the gospels you get this deep profound and very uplifting moral philosophy which is very powerful. The sermon on the mount, for example, is a really compelling read in its context. But then there’s the Jesus who speaks in riddles and berates his friends for not understanding, who curses the fig-tree, who plays word games at his trial, who is a complete git to his friends in Gethsemane. Read a gospel in a sitting and, I’m afraid, I don’t get the sense of a great humanistic teacher. The deep reverence for Jesus in our culture and in the other religions (see “American Jesus” by Stephen Prothero – the analysis isn’t just true of the USA) is born of ignorance of the text, and based on a cultural game of trying to out-respect him.

    I know some intelligent folks who do want to retain their love of Jesus. And they do so by choosing to find the ‘historical Jesus’ in the bits of the story that they agree with and claiming the rest is later addition. I can’t make that methodological leap. Once you notice that Jesus acts as a mirror (the vast majority of people think that Jesus is a slightly better version of themselves – this has recently been shown to be the case by research – though I don’t have my biblographic db here to give the link), it is difficult to take this seriously.

    So I am left with the situation you describe – of seeing the Jesus story as being morally equivalent to other stories like Goldilocks, or the Mort D’Arthur, or Superman. And there I struggle to really give them my worthwhile consideration.

    None of this is to say that I am not interested in Jesus. I am, very much so. But even though I’d consider myself a cultural christian (I participate in christian ritual, for example), I can’t muster up any real religious sense around the Christian mythos, metaphorical or not.

    * As Portrayed In the NT.

  28. Wow, that needs to be a post.
    No, that needs to be a book !

    Glad my Salawat post affected you 🙂

  29. Ian, yep, I agree. Indeed, riding a donkey into Jerusalem is also one of the dickiest things you could do in 30CE or whatever. It was (assuming it’s historical of course – pushing the boat out a bit) an explicit claim to *earthly*, not heavenly kingship. If Jesus was after a spiritual revolution, this was a *really* stupid move.

    And where did he get the donkey from? And the Upper Room? And why was he really in Gethsemane that night of his arrest? Again, assuming that Mark is even remotely accurate (which is a leap, I admit), it suggests that Jesus had a second, more affluent and powerful, group of backers, perhaps with armed support, and was going to try a military takeover of Jerusalem. Sadly for Jesus, the Gethsemane rendezvous fell through, and the disciple groupies (a small section of them) were the ones to undergo cognitive dissonance, and eventually to kick off Christianity as we know it; meanwhile, a funeral was taking place in Capernaum. Maybe.

    Somewhat ironically I came to my own views of “the historical Jesus” (and fully recognise the highly speculative nature of these) while spending several weeks in Nazareth, as well as a bit of time in Jerusalem. The Greatest Story Ever Told is just a story – or a series of stories, and if there is one thing that humans are good at, it is telling stories. If there *was* a real Jesus, I think he simply would be unable to comprehend what has happened since his death.

    But all that is by the by. It’s easy to come up with hypotheses; there is virtually no data to allow these to be properly tested. We’ll probably never know…


  30. Ian

    Thanks Sabio, I’ll muse on it and maybe do a post… I really did like the salawat idea, and I will continue to use the API* forms, I think. Thought I will have to footnote the interpretation for a while, I think.

    Shane, Yes, the Donkey heist is hilarious… one of those great passages you hear a hundred times before you go “now wait a minute here….” 😀

    I liked your comment, and again I find myself not really agreeing with your specific conclusions, but being totally with you on your thought process.

    “assuming that Mark is even remotely accurate” – ah, sorry, I think I may have been unclear then. My previous comment was intended to be about the ‘story’ only. I realize you were talking more generally, and that’s fine. Just so you know where I was coming from.

    I have quite a different set of feelings about the historical Jesus. HJ is vague for me, though I have a sense of what I find more convincing. But it is not enough for me to find him particularly dickish, or anything else, really. But again, from your last sentence I think we’re agreeing while slightly crossing streams. I just try very hard to distinguish HJ from Jesus APINT.

  31. The problem I have with APINT is that there is no APINT. There is not homogenous version. APIM (as portrayed in Mark) or APIMU (as portrayed in Mark-unredacted)
    Long list then, eh?

  32. Or ALPIM (as largely portrayed in Mark)

  33. Ian

    “The problem I have with APINT is that there is no APINT.”

    Hmm… I think you can be too strict about that. Clearly if you take the Jesus story for the whole NT you get more contradictions, differences and less definition. But I think there is still a Jesus at that level that is a distinct character from, say Peter. So you can talk about APINT. Obviously then APIM is more defined, and more idiomatic. And you can go down to the pericope level to talk about specific aspects of his portrayal.

    Narrative criticism is quite able to chop and change levels of abstraction depending on what you’re interested in.

    In my case, Jesus APINT is a bit of a petty character, and that characterization doesn’t change much if you take each gospel individually. It does change more if you think about Jesus APIQ (i.e. the bits of Matthew and Luke that aren’t in Mark, for example), and so on. But I think APINT is the right level to salawat here. Incidentally, this is the main reason I like this naming scheme, because it is a really simple way to be specific about what I mean.

  34. Hi Ian, I don’t disagree with anything you say; I’m merely sketching out a couple of scenarios that appeal to me, but while I’m happy to give them a fair wind, I would not be in any way pugnacious in my advocacy! 🙂 I absolutely agree that there are several Jesuses described in the NT, or facets or layers or whatever, and, whether we regard them as mother-of-pearl or limescale, any original sand grain has long been masked. Mark becomes to all intents and purposes fiction, regardless of any historical messiah figure he may have had in mind when writing. There us really no certainty here – other than the fact that the evidence for the resurrection, in stark contrast to the cocky claims of the apologists, is simply not there. I’m really glad I found your blog; it’s great!

  35. Ian

    whether we regard them as mother-of-pearl or limescale, any original sand grain has long been masked.

    metaphor of the year award to Shane! Jesus the pearl… Is that original to you?

    You’re right, I think Shane – we seem to agree on the important stuff, bit we have different flights of fancy that amuse us!

    I am puzzled though, why do you consider yourself a Christian atheist, if you don’t think Jesus is paticularly special? I may be getting my nomenclature wrong, but I associate that title with atheists who revere Jesus.

  36. Hi Ian,

    It’s not that I revere Jesus, any more than I revere being a mammal. I am a mammal because of my evolutionary history; I am a Christian because that’s where I am coming from, and an Atheist because that’s where I’m at (and very happy with it). My view of Christian Atheism is that I find certain aspects of the *story* appealing (together with a lot of the cultural baggage that has accreted around it, and moulded it, although there is much that I detest!), but I try not to let that cloud my judgement; at this stage it is pretty much a myth, and I would not even claim that it is the *best* myth – indeed, I think it probably isn’t. I don’t think Jesus *was* that special, but we can make the story special if we want (a voluntary process!).

    But there is a bit more than that – the Christian churches have built up a social infrastructure that I think many people find useful, and I really would not like a world where Handel’s Messiah or “And Can It Be” and Psalm 23 or the Song of Songs or York Minster or many other things had all the life sucked out of them, or made simply museum pieces.

    That’s what happened in Ancient Egypt – the religion failed (although bits got incorporated into Christianity of course, like Neanderthal genes in modern Europeans), and now the spectacular and awe-inspiring temples are dead – we pick over the bones, but how must it have felt to actually see these installations *in action* – to watch the Opet festival procession from Karnak to Luxor, to see the sunrise at Gem-pa-Aten?

    Indeed, I would love to see Ancient Egyptian religion revived (in an Egyptologically sensible manner of course, and subject to modification as new discoveries come to light) in precisely the terms of a *narrative* or series of stories/practices, rather than as dogmatic *beliefs*. It has been tried, but hasn’t really been that successful.

    Having said all that, most of my outlook is purely secular; most theological babble gets on my tits something rotten, and when people start elevating a “Christian” perspective above others, I get annoyed. So when I am talking to Christians, I usually do so as an overt atheist, but when talking to atheists, I sometimes take a more Christian line. And in elections I always vote against the current incumbent – I like to keep people on their toes. Contrarian? Au contraire! 🙂

  37. @ Shane
    Your Christian – Atheist dance reminds me of the swaggering of an Amanojaku.

  38. @Sabio, thanks – I think! 🙂

  39. Ian

    Shane, okay it was just a naming thing then. Obviously nobody is right in these kinds of naming, but you’re what I personally would call a “Cultural Christian” – an atheist who participates in christian ritual and their christian community because they live and socialize in a christian culture, rather than from any belief that Christianity is ‘better’ than any alternative.

    That describes me too, although it wouldn’t be a term I would usually identify by.

    I also agree that profundity and meaning is primarily about investment (i.e. what you put in) rather than what is there already.

    I am not sure about the need for a religion to be practicing though – I’ll have to think about that some more.

  40. Hi Ian, yeah, sorta 🙂 Actually, I personally don’t really engage that much in Christian ritual; I hardly ever go into a church. However, I know a lot of people who are perhaps in so deep that it’s hard to get out, so CJCA is really an experiment to see if this situation is retrievable, without pulling up all the roots. If it sucks, it sucks… I like Sabio’s thoughts above.

  41. On my blog Shane confessed to being convinced by Ian that the term “Cultural Christian” better describes himself than “Atheist Christian”. So now, Shane, can we debate what to better call your website.

    a) Cultural Christian Ponderings — Enlarging ways for Atheists to value a few aspects of Christianity.
    b) Sneaky Atheists — Enabling Atheists to be Christian when convenient
    c) Atheists in Sheep Clothing — Avoiding the guts of Christianity

    OK, that is enough for now. What are your new ideas Sean? 😉

  42. Hi Sabio, they’re all good, and they’re all fairly accurate! 🙂 But hey this is the thing; Christians sanitise Christianity all the time; they leave out the silly bits (or, rather, they leave out *some* silly bits – there’s plenty where that came from), and they end up with a sweater that they think fits them. I am merely taking that process one stage further, and suggesting that the *real* ultimate destination of Christianity, as properly understood by learned scholars such as ourselves of course [puffs out waistcoat], is atheism.

    A key virtue is honesty, and I’m not above doing a bit of fibbing to promote it.

    See, it all comes back to this. Someone once said that all of us have a god-shaped hole in our lives. The problem relates to Shane’s First Law of Theology: if you start out with a god-shaped hole, you end up with a hole-shaped god.

    My objective is to throw out the baby, but keep the bathwater. It’s not going to float everyone’s boat, but religion is a leisure activity; not everyone likes the same things. The key is to divorce it from silly cabbage like “belief”, and to ensure that theology is really viewed as a form of wince-inducing comedy.

    These are my lofty aims. And as I say, if they suck, they suck. I don’t mind revising my nefarious schemes if they turn out to be really dopey.

  43. [Drat – memo to self – do not post replies to Sabio after a couple of glasses of wine!]

  44. Shane, you are hilarious, creative and very oddly fun. Keep up the good work.

  45. Ian

    I love this response Shane, thanks. Deliberately throwing out the baby 🙂 Fun. You truly are a master of memorable metaphors! And if it takes a few glasses of wine to get there – well sounds good to me!

    I should probably say that I dislike intensively the wannabe tyranny of asserting that your classification scheme is the one that should hold. I have sets of names that I use for different kinds of blend of religious belief and atheism, but I have no desire to force that on others. If you want to call yourself a Christian Atheist, that’s fine by me. As long as I know now to convert that mentally into the term I’d understand…


    Thanks for spriting up this thread.

    Incidentally, sorry in advance if I’m not as involved as I should be on your blog. I find it very difficult to track blogger blogs, because I miss the notification tools that are there in wordpress. So if there’s a post you expected me to respond to, then it might be worth pinging me by email.

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