Today, Good Friday, Christians celebrate around the world as the day their Savior, Jesus Christ, was put to death on the cross. Most believe, as per gospels, churches, priests and ministers, that he was really the 'Son of God' hence the only route to "salvation". But are they correct or the victims of myth?
It is true that Jesus claims to be divine in the last of our canonical Gospels to be written, the Gospel of John. Here it is enough to note that in that Gospel Jesus does make remarkable claims about himself. In speaking of the father of the Jews, Abraham (who lived eighteen hundred years earlier), Jesus tells his opponents, “Truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). This particular phrase, “I am,” rings a familiar chord to anyone acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Exodus, in the story of the burning bush, Moses asks God what his name is, and God tells him that his name is “I am.” Jesus appears to be claiming not only to have existed before Abraham, but to have been given the name of God himself. His Jewish opponents know exactly what he is saying. They immediately take up stones to stone him.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus is even more explicit, as he proclaims: “I and the Father are one” ( John 10:30). Once again, the Jewish listeners break out the stones. Still later, when Jesus is talking to his disciples at his last meal with them, his follower Philip asks him to show them who God the Father is; Jesus replies, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). And again later, during the same meal, Jesus prays to God and speaks about how God had “sent him” into the world and refers to “my glory that you gave me . . . before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
Jesus is not claiming to be God the Father here, obviously (since when he’s praying, he is not talking to himself ). So he is not saying that he is identical with God. But he is saying that he is equal with God and has been that way from before the world was created. These are amazingly exalted claims.But examined from a historical perspective, they simply cannot be ascribed to the historical Jesus. They don’t pass any of our criteria. They are not multiply attested in our sources; they appear only in John, our latest and most theologically oriented Gospel. They certainly do not pass the criterion of dissimilarity since they express the very view of Jesus that the author of the Gospel of John happens to hold. And they are not at all contextually credible. We have no record of any Palestinian Jew ever saying any such things about himself. These divine self-claims in John are part of John’s distinctive theology; they are not part of the historical record of what Jesus actually said.
Perhaps no serious theological group has shed more light on the real, historical Jesus than the Jesus Seminar, and particularly the works of one of its luminaries, John Dominic Crossan.
My own ability to ferret out the key research of the Jesus Seminar via Exegesis was no doubt aided by my having attended a Jesuit-run university (Loyola) in New Orleans ca: 1964-67. So, I'd already taken courses in biblical exegesis, Quadriform Gospel analysis and Comparative Religion. My mind was therefore already open to the possibilities John Dominic Crossan presented in his masterful book: The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant .
Crossan's conclusionary take on Jesus is perhaps best summarized on p. 422:
"His strategy, implicitly for himself and explicitly for his followers, was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power.
And lest he himself be interpreted as simply the new broker of a new God, he moved on constantly, settling down neither at Nazareth or Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another.
He announced, in other words, the borderless kingdom of God."
Jesus as a historical person, in other words, entirely fit within the egalitarian Gnostic scheme - as opposed to the Pauline 'god-man/Savior' theme. (The Gnostics, as biblical scholar Elaine Pagels notes in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, considered anyone who identified with God as committing a sacrilege and blasphemy).
What or who was Jesus, at the end of the day? From the weight of Crossan's arguments and insights - not to mention the consensus of The Jesus Seminar Project- he was an extraordinary man. But a flesh and blood human nonetheless.
In Crossan's final conclusion - with which I wholeheartedly concur from everything I've seen- Jesus was a "peasant Jewish Cynic". As Crossan points out, p. 421, a 'Cynic' embodied:
"a life-style and mindset in opposition to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilization, a way of looking and dressing, of eating and living and relating, that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage. ....Hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies.")
Little wonder then that Jesus' habits would infuriate not only Jewish orthodoxy but the Roman government. Leading ultimately to execution for what they'd have perceived as "subversion" of the Empire. Geza Vermes, a scholar of ancient Judaism concurs with this take. He is a Jewish Studies professor at Oxford University. According to Vermes, Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified because he "clashed with Jewish and Roman leaders" and was regarded as a "potential threat to law and order and consequently to the welll being of the Jewish people".
They thus decided he "had to be eliminated for the common good."
Vermes goes on to note the 'spark' that ignited the hostility was probably Yeshua doing the "wrong thing" by tossing out the money changers, "in the wrong place" (the Temple). At the "wrong time" (Passover).
Vermes' (like Crossan and other researchers) thus rejects implicitly the facile explanation that the dispute involved the claim of being a unique Son of God who "exercised divine powers".
Vermes doubts seriously (as scholar Elaine Pagels of Harvard notes vis-a-vis the Gnostics) that those 'Savior' beliefs and words were part of the original message.
They were added later on, most of the additions from bastardizations of the Latin Vulgate in its transciption to the King James Bible - which is probably the worst version of the bible available- though it reads the best!
Neither Crossan's or Vermes' work is unique either, as the weight of modern textual analysis comes down firmly on their side. We have numerous earlier sources for the historical Jesus: a few comments in Paul (including several quotations from Jesus’s teachings), Mark, Q, M, and L, not to mention the finished Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In none of them do we find exalted claims of this sort. If Jesus went around
The central problem for the conventional Christian believer inevitably arises: how to reconcile his/her faith in a literal 'God-Man/Savior' Jesus, with the actual historical person. Who was more a radical, "liberal" freedom-fighter against the Roman state. (Again, imagine a well spoken 60s radical, like Yippie Jerry Rubin, alive and well in the Middle East and dissing all the antiquated Jewish and Roman customs like he dissed the "establishment" in the 60s)
Crossan offers a hint ('Epilogue', p. 423):
"Is an understanding of the historical Jesus of any permanent relevance to Christianity itself? I propose that at the heart of any Christianity there is always, covertly or overtly, a dialectic between a historically read Jesus and a theologically read Christ. Christianity is always, in other words, a Jesus/Christ/ianity."
and finally (ibid.)
"This book challenges the reader on the level of formal method, material investment, and historical interpretation. It presumes there will always be divergent historical Jesuses, that there will always be divergent Christs built upon them, but above all, it argues that the structure of a Christianity will always be: this is how we see Jesus as Christ now."
For anyone with patience and a truly open mind, Crossan's research (embodied in his book) is a worthwhile excursion into the intricacies of textual analysis, and diligent comparison of ancient scrolls, sources. Its intellectual journey is breathtaking, and its conclusions even more so.
All things to bear in mind today, Good Friday!