Philosophy: On Jesus

The Jesus seminar is a group of scholars who have adopted a systematic approach to the search for the historical Jesus. Listing all the sayings and acts attributed to him, they colour code the likely veracity of each according to the standards of biblical criticism. For example, if the saying or act fits uneasily with subsequent Christian teaching, it's likely to be true, for only that could have stopped its suppression. One of these sayings is Jesus' injunction to turn the other cheek. An “inauthentic” saying is the beatitude he supposedly pronounced on those persecuted for following the Son of Man. The work has led the scholars to conclude that Jesus was an extraordinary ethical teacher, perhaps akin to Gandhi. It's an answer to the question of who this man was that AN Wilson, in his book “Jesus”, utterly refutes.

It's not that what's recorded about him in the four gospels is not fascinating to search and weigh. Rather, it's that the ethical teaching is too muddled. Jesus has been read as a pacifist, as the saying about turning the other cheek might imply. And yet his disciples apparently carried swords in the Garden of Gethsemane. He taught that the poor would be blessed, though archaeological evidence suggests he lived for most of his life in a comfortable home. It just doesn't add up. “A patient and conscientious reading of the gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise,” Wilson writes. “If it makes sense, it's wrong.”

His book is written in an open-minded, if questioning tone. He tests the evidence, whilst respecting the faith of ordinary Christians. His barbs are mostly saved for institutions like churches, who have consistently shown "contempt" towards what their supposed founder reportedly said. Some allow divorce, when Jesus is almost certain to have forbidden it. Others claim Jesus as their founder, when the fact that he didn't present his teachings in anything like a systematic form, but rather engaged with existing Jewish teaching, implies otherwise. He seems to have regarded himself as an authoritative, reformist rabbi, with apocalyptic leanings. He almost certainly believed that a new kingdom was coming, one so imminent that his disciples could live by it already. Interestingly, the main sign of living in that kingdom was not good acts or right faith, but what we might call personal integrity. Wilson tells the Jewish story about the sinner who dies and is asked by God whether he kept the Torah, said his prayers, and was faithful to his wife. The sinner answers “no” on all counts. “Come into the kingdom,” says God. “Why?” asks the man. “Because you told the truth,” replies God.

In short, for Wilson, Jesus is a figure who trips everyone up. He disrupts.

The evangelists might have agreed that the Jesus seminar approach is wrong, as they too don't present him as particularly admirable. Bertrand Russell said he could take some of Jesus' advice, such as not judging others so that you are not judged in return. What he could not stomach was his moral character: it's a monster who would condemn people to outer darkness. But, the gospels seem to say, you're asking the wrong question. Jesus is saviour; that's the message.

This becomes clear in the extraordinary details that are given about the last few hours of his life. That's exceptional for an historical figure, bar a handful, like Socrates – though like Plato's dialogues, the gospels are clearly not supposed to be historical records. They're inconsistent in too many details. Instead, their intention might be called mythological.

The stories of the passion present Jesus as an archetype, Wilson proposes, one demanding a response. “It is precisely because we know so little of the trivial things in the story that we can respond so powerfully to the large things – to his silences, to his apparent forgiveness of his captors, to his loneliness, and to his suffering.”

Compare that restraint with the account given by the novelist Anne Rice in her Christ the Lord series. She fills in all the details. The result is a god-man oddity. Her Jesus alienates, unless you have already bought into the personality cult such documentary approaches appeal to, when every detail is welcomed like titbits in a celebrity magazine.

What about the resurrection? The first Easter Sunday is treated as verifiable history by many theologians, even in liberal churches. It is the scientific proof of the gospel.

Wilson does not follow that line. Efforts to find out “what really happened” are wisely abandoned, he avers. The evangelists are writing out of faith. They seek no proof, but rather to inhabit what they believe. Some details probably carry echoes of otherwise lost events, such as the role some women played in establishing the new faith. But to treat the gospels as objective is just to miss their point. “Subjectivity is the only criterion of gospel truth,” Wilson writes.

Paul understood this. His encounter with Jesus is conveyed in terms of visionary experiences. He doesn't bother with evidence, or say his faith stands or falls on the existence of an empty tomb, Wilson points out. It's the living Christ that counts for him – the subjective experience. As the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich observed, if the crucifixion was an event that became a symbol, the resurrection was a symbol that became an event.

For Wilson himself, at least at the time he wrote this book, Jesus died a broken man. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” he cried out on the cross, one of those embarrassing and so authentic sayings. He's a tragic figure, not a saviour – a man whose animating personality is as hidden as thoroughly as that of Shakespeare.

Mark Vernon, Thursday 4 February 2010

Back to the top