Did Jesus Exist and Does it Matter? (2)
Last week I spoke about the evidence for the existence of Jesus – evidence from the New Testament, from the Christian Church, and from non-Christian sources – and I concluded by saying that this evidence, far from being compelling, and far from establishing Jesus’ existence unequivocally, was, in fact, rather thin and, when looked at dispassionately, pointed to Jesus being a fictional, rather than a historical, character.
Today I’d like to discuss the implications of this. Does it matter? Is the credibility of Christianity dependent upon its being inspired by the life, death, and teaching of one person who can be located in history with a fair degree of precision? For many people, the question is breathtakingly audacious, even impertinent. For them, Christianity is Jesus. Many times I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have, too, that Christianity is not about a body of doctrines, it is about a person. We have all heard people talk of having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, which implies not only that Jesus lived but that he is still alive and can be consulted, spoken to, listened to in prayer. (I would have more sympathy with this point of view if, in the course of such consultations, Jesus gave his devotees consistent advice, but he seems to say one thing to a Catholic and something else to a Protestant. This hardly inspires confidence in the supposed relationship.) For many people – probably the same people – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is central to their religion. ‘If Christ be not risen,’ says St. Paul, ‘your faith is in vain’. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity because, on this understanding, Christianity is about life after death, avoiding hell and gaining heaven, and the resurrection is a guarantee of the reality of this. Furthermore, it is a demonstration of the status of Jesus; because God raised him from the dead, we can be sure that he has God’s approval, and so we can believe confidently in his message. A historical Jesus is indeed the cornerstone of such a religious outlook; take him away and the whole structure would come tumbling down.
But this is not the only way of viewing Christianity, nor, I venture to suggest is it necessarily the oldest way. If we look at the Gospel of Thomas, which, in all probability, is as old as the Gospels which found their way into the New Testament, Jesus appears not so much as a historical character with a mission to effect vicarious atonement for those who believe in him, but ‘as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding; when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master; the two have become equal, even identical’ (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels),
To some early Christians, the historical Jesus was of little consequence; he served as a symbol of what we might call the Christ principle, the principle of interior illumination, of enlightenment, which all may access and then embody by embarking on the arduous path of spiritual transformation. This is a feature of what is called Gnosticism, and it had an enormous influence in the early Christian centuries; so great an influence, in fact, that the first defenders of what was to become Christian orthodoxy went to enormous lengths to combat it. It has customarily been supposed that this kind of thinking was a wild, heretical shift from a historical understanding of the Jesus figure, but it is equally plausible that the historical understanding came later and was constructed by people who wanted to impose structure on a pretty diverse and almost anarchic set of approaches to God (which Gnosticism was), and who felt that they could do this best by insisting upon, and demanding belief in, certain historical elements. Some minds are very uneasy in the presence of poetry or of disorder.
But this desire to control and bring order to the loose Gnostic understanding of Jesus has had the opposite effect to the one desired. Far from establishing a consistent orthodoxy, to which all may reasonably give assent, it has generated an almost unbelievable array of possibilities, each one claiming scriptural authority. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the area of Christology, that part of theology which deals with the person and work of Christ. Far from unifying Christians, it has divided them, to the great puzzlement of other religious systems, like the Buddhist, the Jewish, and the Hindu, which are less concerned with the nature and status of the religious messenger, and more concerned with living out the message.
William Blake, who stands very firmly in the Gnostic tradition (which has never been eliminated from Christianity, despite persecution, excommunication, and ridicule), encapsulated these divisions over Jesus in The Everlasting Gospel:
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine
Mine has a snub nose like to mine;
Thine is the friend of all mankind
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou readst black where I read white.
None of this would have any importance at all, of course, if it were simply the preserve and concern of scholarly pedants; it would be about as relevant to us as the debate between the Big Endians and the Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels, the two groups which interminably and violently argue over whether one should slice off the top of a boiled egg at the big end or the little end. But the debate about Jesus (which, of course, is one of the things that Swift is satirising) has left its bloody mark on human history in a way that few others have. When it was decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. that Jesus was ‘very God of very God’, intellectual and theological credibility was lent to an already prevalent anti-Semitism; if Jesus is God, then, so the thinking goes, the Jews are guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable – deicide, the killing of God. The consequences of this for the Jewish people, and for the human race, have been, and still are, unbelievably tragic, and the belated apology that the pope made recently to the Jews merely serves to highlight the absurd and inhuman character of this kind of thinking.
And when it became an article of faith that Jesus walked the earth, then the supposed sites of his earthly sojourn became ‘holy’ places, giving rise to still more tragedies and follies. Fighting over places in the name of religion seems to be about as pointless an act as it is possible to imagine. We may smile today at the antics of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians squabbling over supposed holy sites in Palestine, many of which owe more to shrewd marketing than to reality, but the squabbles have not always been so amusing. The Crusades, whose ostensible purpose was to wrest control of the so-called Christian holy places from the Muslims, witnessed some of mankind’s most savage acts. At the siege of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1097, between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews and Muslims were killed in two days. A Christian knight, Count Raymond of Aguilers, wrote:
Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men cut off the heads of our enemies, others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city.
What more can I tell? Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children. The horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgment of God. (Ludovic Kennedy, All in the Mind, page 113)
All this and more because the unique God-man, Jesus, had rendered these places holy by his presence. Now, of course, most orthodox Christians would deplore such things as much as you or I, but there have been less overt examples of this insistence on the uniqueness of Jesus which have caused, and are still causing, conflict among the religions. Those Christians, and I suppose it would be the majority, who insist that Jesus is the only way to God – ‘no one comes to the Father except by me’ – automatically and necessarily hold that every other religious expression is inferior to their own. This makes conversion of others a duty, and one can readily see the logic behind the idea that making people Christian by force is actually doing them a favour. This particular doctrine, which has caused so much misery down the years, is a great stumbling block to genuine inter-religious dialogue; some Christians will never rest until the whole world is Christian.
But by far the most important negative effect of this insistence on Jesus as a unique historical figure has been its power to distract us from concentrating on the system of spiritual transformation which bears his name. To our great detriment, we have, as the Buddhists say, mistaken the finger pointing at the moon, for the moon itself. We have given our attention to the messenger and neglected the message; we have constructed a religion about Jesus, sentimentalising him sometimes, being terrified of him at others, rather than embarking upon the spiritual path which the Gospels delineate for us; we have developed a non-demanding religion of cowering obedience to external authorities, rather that one of arduous interior exploration; and we have failed to see that the Christian system of spiritual transformation, when shorn of its external trappings, is the same in essence as that found in other cultures and in other nations, indicating that these things describe the perennial human search for the divine and are a source of unity with our fellow human beings and not of isolation from them.
Even liberals like ourselves, with our own historical hang-ups, have spent our time examining the Gospels to see which bits are authentic and credible and which are mere mythological accretions, and this process has reached its natural and crazy conclusion in the California based Jesus Seminar, which has, using a variety of strange criteria, reduced what it considers to be material genuinely emanating from Jesus to about half a dozen incidents or sayings which would hardly cover a postcard. In short, we have made a mess of things, at times an extremely costly mess, so much so that I am tempted to suggest that, even if Jesus did exist, it’s perhaps time that we started acting and thinking as if he didn’t. Then, maybe, we’ll be able to read the stories about him as they were originally intended to be read.
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from