The Many Jesi

This is really a response to Sabio’s post here, but I’m responding here because I want to include an image.

Sabio is responding to someone who is claiming that one can challenge the religious right’s use of Jesus by appealing to the Jesus of the New Testament. He rightly says that there is no ‘Jesus of the New Testament’ – there are many of them. And he is right to say that the historical Jesus (the facts about Jesus we can be reasonably confident in as historians) are very few indeed.

I’ve been banging the drum for a better public understanding of the diversity of content in the bible for some time. So this is right up my alley.

But it strikes me that the two arguments pass in the night. It is both true that there is a diversity of concepts of Jesus in the NT, that the historical Jesus (HJ) is very minimal, and that one can argue that the religious right have Jesus all wrong. And I think the route of the mismatch is in understanding that the historical Jesus is not the same as the consensus Jesus of the NT. The gospel writers do agree on quite a lot about who Jesus was, what was important to him, and what he did. Historically much of this is dubious, a lot of it downright absurd, but that’s beside the point, I think. If you grant that the bible is authoritative in some sense, then even though you acknowledge its diversity, you can ask of it: does it have a consensus on this issue? And if it does, then one would presumably want to be able to mobilise that consensus as clear teaching from that authority.



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10 responses to “The Many Jesi

  1. Pingback: The Many Jesi | Irreducible Complexity : Homegrown Religion

  2. Hi, Ian. I followed your link here from Sabio’s blog. I’m the one he was responding to in his post.

    This business about there allegedly being “many” Jesuses in the New Testament is something I’m inclined to dispute. At the very least I would like to see it explained or laid out in theory.

    For my part, I see perhaps two: a Jewish apocalyptic prophet (based mainly on the synoptic gospels) and a spiritual savior and God/man (based mainly on John’s gospel and the Pauline epistles). And I don’t think those two necessarily are irreconcilable.

    In short, that’s my take and I would be curious to hear yours.

    As far as a historical Jesus goes, I would first need to know why the canonical gospel tradition must be rejected (as opposed to asking why it should be). Sure, I’d be the first person to admit that tradition has been mingled with legend and myth. There are clear inconsistencies and contradictions in the story of Jesus. But that same thing can be said about the life story of lots of historical characters – and without a rush to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    I’m not seeking a debate or anything. I’m just suggesting that the case for the unreliableness of the gospel tradition and against the historical Jesus may be overstated.

    For the sake of clarifying from what angle I’m looking at this matter, I confess to being both a naturalist and a non-theist. And I am a former Christian fundamentalist. But I have no ulterior motive for arguing that the Jesus of the gospels may have been a historical person. If that theory cannot be sustained, it would have no effect whatsoever on my worldview.

    Nice blog, by the way. I’ll come and do more reading here when I have more free time.

  3. Ian

    Doug, thanks so much for stopping by, welcome.

    So some observations:

    1) On reconciliation. This is no doubt true. If someone gathered up my lifetime of sayings and actions, they would be deeply contradictory. There would be, in effect, multiple mes. I don’t want to suggest that the Jesi are different underlying Jesi, but when someone writes a story about a person, even if the story is accurate, they will paint their own portrait.

    2) So the *characters* in the stories are different. Mark’s Jesus is quite different to Matthews. And you can see how when you look at parallel passages. Mark’s is much more vicious that Matthew, for example. It is my contention that those differences matter, because the author’s theologies were different, and so how we understand Jesus from their texts should be different. In that opinion I stand with most biblical scholars of the last 150 years. It is important, because Christians do tend to jump to the portrayal of Jesus that most suits them. Understanding the diversity is an important corrective: at the very least we should know that (for example) if we want to talk about Jesus being passionate that all should come to know him, we should be aware that Mark’s Jesus seems to be rather the opposite. [by point 1 we can’t tell if that is because he really was like that, or Mark just cherry-picked the more negative sounding teachings].

    3) The gospel tradition is rejected based on methodological naturalism. As a historian you have to treat the bible as no different from any other text. The majority of what Jesus does in the gospels is ahistoric. If it were true, it was a miracle, and therefore is inaccessible using historical methods. So one has to develop a methodology for sifting this out. And depending on that methodology, other things also fall: the anachronisms, for example, prophecy, events which are primarily symbolic, and so on. The historian then asks: “how do we know Mark (say) didn’t make this up himself.”, and the method needs to look at reasons to believe certain teachings. The result, called the ‘historical Jesus’ is what a reasonable historian could conclude about Jesus from the evidence. That is quite minimal, some facts about his life and death, a basic tenor of his teaching.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’ve added you to my Blogs I Like list on my blog and herewith extend an invitation to you to participate there any time you have the time.

    I do think it is misleading to suggest that there are “many Jesi” in the gospels. The writers may have presented him in slightly different ways, but I see the same person and same general teaching in all of them – more or less, at least.

    Now when I speak of the gospel tradition I don’t have in mind something that goes against methodological naturalism. I rather mean that I have no problem with the idea that especially the synoptic gospels work within the framework of a common tradition, perhaps a “sayings gospel,” like the proposed Q gospel. The early followers of Jesus no doubt had some source(s) for their cult’s origin, many no doubt oral. I don’t find it incredible that Jesus may have performed “exorcisms” just like modern Catholic and even protestant priests do today. I think that is a psychological thing. Neither does it doesn’t strain my imagination to picture Jesus going about praying and laying hands on his listeners and “healing” them in the same manner we see modern day “faith” healers doing (exaggerations to follow). In a day and age when Uri Geller can convince many so people of his “powers,” I have no problem with the idea that Jesus’ followers would have attributed many wonders to such a charismatic person. I’m just saying that I don’t find it necessary to dismiss the gospel tradition as one big pious but damned lie.

    Or maybe it is. Hey, I’m a skeptic. But sometimes I’m a little skeptical of skepticism.

  5. Ian

    “I don’t find it necessary to dismiss the gospel tradition”

    I think you’re just approaching things from a confessional direction.

    A historian says “what have we good reason to believe happened?”, you seem to be saying “what can we find some explanation for?” The latter is might make conversations with Christians easier, but it is just another form of apologetics.

    When historians approach a text that is clearly polemic, theological and miraculous, they approach with caution. They don’t try to find ways to rationalise the miracles and the inconsistencies, they try to find a logical basis for extracting any dependable evidence from the text (if indeed there is any).

    Having been a conservative Christian, you’re probably deeply inured to just how far-fetched the gospel stories are, in a way that you’d see through clearly if you read similar stories about Julius Ceasar, or Socrates, say. Read the few chapters in Matthew after the sermon on the mount, replacing ‘Jesus’ with ‘Ceasar’ and ask yourself, what would a historian think of the historical reliability of this text?

    The historical approach is not to say: “can we think of a way whereby the writer of this far-fetched story might have misunderstood what actually happened.” The historical approach is to say “this is far-fetched, we can’t build anything dependable on such a wobbly foundation.”

    Whoever the real Jesus was he was significantly bigger than the Jesus of historical enquiry. You seem to agree he was not how any of the gospel writers portray him. So what he actually was, we can’t know. He might have been quite similar to the consensus gospel portrayal, he might have been quite different. We can’t know. All we can do is to analyse the texts we have, on their own terms, in their diversity and consensus, and then use sound historical methods to find the core. Creating another meta-story isn’t helpful, it is a confessional, a theological endevor.

  6. I just think there is a lot of room for disagreement on this. I don’t feel a need to rationalize the alleged miraculous. At the same time I don’t feel the need to say, “hey this is incredible … it must be made up out of whole cloth.” It’s true, we just can’t say much with absolute certainty. I tend to take a dual approach. The walking on water thing, for instance, I would be inclined to take as pure legend. The “healing” tales I would tend to view more sympathetically, but still skeptically. Maybe I am too accomodating. But if so, not because of a carryover from my former fundy viewpoint. Sometimes bringing people to the truth is better accomplished by baby steps than shock and awe. I could just as easily forget the entire subject. But that is hard to do here in America, and especially in the Bible Belt where I live.

  7. Ian

    “hey this is incredible … it must be made up out of whole cloth.”

    I think you’re misunderstanding I’m saying and what the historical Jesus is about. We do not claim that it is made up out of whole cloth, that would be a deeply unhistorical claim. But we do say that it probably didn’t happen exactly as told, and we’ve no way of reconstructing what was at the root of it. We can all come up with speculation, and some of it might be right, but we can’t know with any degree of confidence: its nothing to do with certainty. So that stuff is not a historical conclusion, it is speculation.

    It might be *right*, but it is not a valid historical conclusion. As historians we need to start with what we think we can be confident of, and be comfortable that most of the truth will be omitted from that conclusion.

  8. Kay

    Thank you so much for the diagram, the post and the conversation. It’s really helping me work through stuff.

  9. exrelayman


    I am very glad you left a link to your blog over at Sabio’s. I found both you and Sabio from the post at Doug’s which started the intrablog dialogue.

    I started pretty much in lock step with Sabio in responding to Doug. I agree that if there was a HJ then he is obscured by the very gospels that proclaim him, and that as Schweitzer and others have noted, researchers have had a tendency to find a Jesus that was very much like themselves. He might even be pure myth. There are good and not so good expositions supporting pure myth.

    However, I came to realize that Doug’s post was contrasting the MOST CONVENTIONAL PROTESTANT CONCEPTION of Jesus with the policies of the conservative Republican party, said policies hurting the weak and disadvantaged. Whereas Jesus said something about if you have done it to the least of these you have done it to me.

    Secondly, while it is agreed that the true Jesus may be a myth or an unfindable real person, and that many views of him are possible in view of the unreliability of the gospels and their divergent views of him, I think also that from an uncritical acceptance of the gospels, the particular Jesus that loved the poor and downtrodden is more readily arrived at than other views. This makes my original demur at Doug’s blog a bit of diversion from the good point he was making.

    However, I am most assuredly less of a scholar than you, and am ready to be schooled if I am at present amiss. I am glad to have found you and will be checking in on your blog in the future.

  10. Ian

    I agree totally, and that was my aim in this post. There is a middle ground between the different fuzzy Jesi of scripture, and the barely-there historical Jesus. It is the Jesus of consensus. And that Jesus, I think very obviously, was not pro wealth or capitalism. The gospels don’t agree whether he was neutral on such issues or extremely — going-to-hell extremely — against them. But I think there is clearly enough meat on the consensus Jesus to say that a broad sweep of the Religious Right are anti-Jesus.

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