Jesus: The Man and the Myth
It’s remarkable how little we know about the historical Jesus. No one even knows what he looked like. He was Semitic, of course, a Judean peasant. Hollywood blockbusters like "King of Kings" and "Ben Hur" have almost certainly sanitized, lightened and brightened his image. But whether he was tall or short, heavy or thin, light or swarthy, nobody really knows. For some reason, those who knew him best never thought those things worth recording.
He was a Jew of doubtful parentage, apparently one of several siblings. The baby in the barn stories are almost certainly the fanciful creations of later generations. Mark, which was written well before Luke or Matthew, says nothing about shepherds or virgins or wise men or stars. While Thomas, an extra-canonical gospel that many scholars think may be even earlier, is likewise silent on the details of Jesus’ birth. And yet the Biblical accounts aren’t far from the truth when they suggest that his origins were humble and his arrival inconspicuous, unnoted in the Social Registers of the day.
We know that he lived in Palestine, an insignificant bit of real estate on the fringes of the mighty Roman Empire. It’s less likely he was born in Bethlehem than Nazareth, a village with a few hundred residents at most. Between ninety-five and ninety-seven percent of the population was illiterate in those days, and Jesus wouldn’t have had any educational advantages, so it’s doubtful that he could read or write. If his father was indeed a carpenter, he would have belonged to the economic stratum call tektons, landless laborers who lived a step up from slaves but owned no property and worked with their hands, scraping by on a subsistence level. Most scholars doubt if he ever traveled more than ninety miles from where he was born.
When he reached manhood, he was baptized by a charismatic preacher named Johnon this, all the gospels agreeand began a roving ministry of his own. He attracted followers. None of the gospel accounts are in accordance on their names here, while the Babylonian Talmud, one of the few independent historical sources on Jesus, lists five disciples: Mattai, Maquai, Metser, Buni and Todah.
Nothing that we know of was written about him during his own lifetime. Paul’s letters, the earliest documents of the Christian period, were inscribed ten to twenty years after his death, by a man who never met him in the flesh. And the gospels that recount the details of his ministry and death were the products of still later authors.
Other chroniclers paid scant attention to the movement that he spawned. Tacitus, a Roman historian writing early in the second century, was aware of a sect causing disturbances in Rome, and tells how a rumor blamed the Emperor Nero for a disastrous fire that swept Rome in 64 C.E.
- Therefore to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the sect, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment …
So the record seems to confirm that Jesus was crucified as a criminal and that his adherents came from the hoi polloi, the netherworld of respectable society. Christianity, one hundred years after the birth of its founders, seemed barely worth a footnote in the records of the great empires and wars of the day. Yet all that was about to change, as Christianity moved away from the margins and into the halls of power.
This is how it happened. From Augustus onward, the various Caesars had begun to proclaim their own divinity and even to call themselves soter or "saviour." Over time, their claims mounted, so that the Emperor came to be identified with the whole pantheon of gods, from Mirthras to Jupiter, but especially with a supreme deity called the Sol Invictus or Invincible Sun, whose birthday festival fell just a few days after the winter solstice, on December 25. The pagan ruler Aurelian in 275 C.E. melded worship of the solar deity with his own cult of emperor worship, erecting a magnificent temple to Helios and declaring himself to be deus et dominus, or God and Master of the Universe. And roughly fifty years later, under the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, December 25 would be established as the official date of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, and the simple son of an obscure Jewish carpenter would be increasingly incorporated into the royal ideology that sanctified and sanctioned the machinery of imperialism.
The story of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, which smoothed the way for this transition, is well known, On the eve of an important battle, according to the church historian Eusebius, Constantine had a vision of a cross of light bearing the inscription "Conquer By This," and then emblazoning the figure of the crucifix on his soldier’s shields was able to vanquish his foes in military triumph. A few years later, Constantine proceeded to call a Church Council at Nicea, where, surrounded by the royal troops and bodyguards, the Christian bishops were assembled and told to iron out a doctrinal agreement that could end the religious bickering within his empire and help unify his rule.
The Nicean Creed that resulted, making Jesus co-equal with God, would probably have been unrecognizable to the founder of the Christian faith, who may or may not have thought of himself as a messiah or prophet, but certainly never equated himself with the Almighty. The crowds give him many names, Son of Man, Son of David, sometimes rabbi, while the Gospel of Thomas called him simply the Living Jesus. But the man from Nazareth seldom described himself at all, for his mission was less to call attention to his own presence than to awaken the moral imagination of his listeners, through parables and allegories about a parent reunited with a long lost son, about a traveler mugged by robbers on the road, about a joyful wedding feast where the guest list is thrown away and people off the street invited to attend. He often answered people’s questions with questions of his own, posed riddles, speaking in contradictions designed to make people pause and think more deeply than usual.
When he did preach, it was of a heavenly kingdom, where the hungry would be fed and the naked clothed, the humble exalted and the mighty laid low. Quite a contrast to Constantine’s realm and his gleaming capitol of Constantinople with its five imperial palaces, six palaces for ladies of the court, three for high dignitaries, along with hundreds of sumptuous baths, places of amusement and brilliantly decorated plazas. On one hilltop stood the Forum of Constantine, with triumphal arches at either end and the architectural wonder of St. Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, in the distance. Yet Jesus would have been more at home in the tenements of this metropolis, among the urchins whose cries filled the alleyways. For his was a kingdom where the first would be last, not one where people were ranked by wealth or accidents of birth.
In that classical period, you need to understand, society was rigidly stratified. Whole classes of people were considered to be dirty, loathsome, filthy, not because of any wrong-doing on their part, not because they had "sinned" through any
lapse in standards of character or conduct, but rat
her due to their social station or economic status or other externals. Modern distinctions of right and wrong were secondary then to Greco-Roman categories of honor and dishonor and Jewish distinctions of purity and pollution. So, for example, physical health and beauty were considered praiseworthy while people who were maimed or disfigured or diseased were regarded as low and degraded, objects of shame and scorn. Literally, such individuals were untouchable, living apart and outside the city gates, shunned by the better sort of citizen, giving a whole new understanding to the healing stories, like the one recorded in Mark:
- And there came a leper to him, beseeching him and kneeling down to him, and saying to him, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him …
Did you notice? The man didn’t ask to be cured, but rather to be made clean. The leprosy did get better, the story says, but the emphasis is less on a medical miracle than on a spiritual reality. Being "cleansed" I interpret not only in a ritual sense, but as a holistic response to the therapeutic power of touch and simple human contact. Imagine a lifetime living among people who consider themselves your betters, who are physically repulsed by your very existence, when one of those strangers come forward as a peer and reaches out his hand in support and comfort. The humiliation, the self-loathing of being sick was lifted and dissolved because, as the story says, Jesus was moved with compassion, which is a term that in both Hebrew and Aramaic is the plural of a noun that in its singular form is usually translated as "uterus" or "womb." So a mother feels compassion for the child stirring inside here that is her own flesh. A man responds with compassion to a brother or sister, because the two spring from the same womb. Thus when Jesus advises his listeners, "be compassionate as God is compassionate," he is saying that the greatest force in the universe is like a mother’s love for her children, indiscriminate and unconditional, not favoring those who are especially gifted with good health or good looks or good fortune, but most of all concerned with the outcasts, literally those outside the caste systems of that culture.
For Jesus, those outcasts included foreignerslike Gentiles and Samaritans who were considered non-kosher by the good religious people of the time. They included prostitutes and harlots (terms that could refer to any unchaperoned woman in that patriarchal setting.) Children, like women, were considered sub-human commodities in that slave economy, and Jesus associated with them, too. Today he’d probably include undocumented immigrants, bisexuals, and more in his entourage. The despised minorities, those of little worth, had special value in his eyes.
Because sin, Jesus taught, is whatever separates us from our neighbor, disrupting the actual unity of the human family. Healing or salvation is whatever restores our sense of kinship and worth as equal citizens within the kingdom, enabling us to participate again the mutuality of caring relationships. But that vision of a realm governed by love would be almost lost to view. For within a few years of his death, Jesus the man would be almost completely overshadowed by Jesus the myth. And the defining dogma of the Christian Church, that Jesus was God, would become a caricature of itself, equating an unlettered Jewish wisdom teacher with the cosmic Creator of heaven and earth and generating new systems of power and privilege every bit as pernicious as the old, separating orthodox from heretic, engendering sexism and anti-Semitism, and glorifying poverty rather than challenging the power inequities that create it. Were the historic Jesus alive today, it’s these social sins that he would condemn, militarism and racism and classism, that far more than abortion or fornication, constitute the real offenses against human dignity, demeaning whole categories of people and rendering them expendable.
Few figures in history have had their words so distorted or their lives so ironically misunderstood as Jesus. And reclaiming his legacy not only requires separating fact from fiction but reversing the spool of legend that’s been spun around him. The myth of his divinity must be re-invented, so that it becomes less a statement about who Jesus was than a statement about who or what God might be, if there really were a God, if there really is a source of hope, if there really could be some foundation for justice apart from the Caesars who claim to be the lords of creation. This story that the Ultimate Meaning of Things came into the world in the night time, in a manger, hidden from the spotlights and far removed from pomp and circumstance, needs to be re-interpreted as a clue about where we find what’s redeeming in human experience. For if the divinity of Jesus means anything, it means something like this: that the saving grace of life, what rescues human existence from sheer brutality and the politics of might makes right, is in some way like Jesus, itinerant and well-nigh invisible, moving quietly among people in small and unobtrusive ways. If the infinite is revealed anywhere, it must be in a life like this one, not particularly successful by worldly standards, not one that amassed many possessions, not one that accumulated many graduate degrees, not one that commanded armies, not even one that made brilliant new discoveries, since most of what Jesus taught was pre-figured in the Hebrew scriptures and paralleled by other religious teachers of the time, but a life that embraced others unconditionally, beyond stigmas and stereotypes, affirming the beauty and possibility in every single person.
At Christmas, we should be reminded that goodness, like that kingdom Jesus spoke of, is present all around us but often inconspicuous. It arrives without fanfare. Unless we’re receptive, it can pass unnoticed. Jesus puts it this way in the Gospel of Thomas. His disciples ask, "When will the kingdom come? And he answers, "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter or saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather the kingdom of God is spread out on the earth and people do not see."
May we be given eyes to see, amid the tinsel and trappings of this season, the ever present possibility of a world transformed by love. May we be given ears to hear the ancient call to peacemaking and shalom. And may we be given hearts to act Christmas, in the spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood, all year long.