Jesus existed

A brief follow-up to my “Jesus never existed” post.

I believe Jesus of Nazareth existed. I believe he was a great and gifted teacher and healer. I also believe Jesus as Christ only happened when his followers placed that on him.

As for “no first-hand accounts,” I wrote my “Jesus never existed” essay to acknowledge this truth. The accounts we have of Jesus of NazarethJesus are, so far, not first-hand accounts. And, to that, I say, “so what?” Going back that far in history it’s not very common to have first-hand accounts of anything. And, as a wise theologian wrote to me, “Proof cannot be an operative word here, since we’re dealing with the past. The only question that counts is historical probability.”

Moving on to discussions of the resurrection I’ll happily explain that on every third or fourth day I’m perfectly content with that as reality. The other days I’m more comfortable with it as metaphor. What makes me a sort of wacky christian is that I don’t care. Both work for me. If I’m celebrating poetry or a miracle can change from moment to moment.

Let’s love our neighbors, care for the least of those among us, look beyond ourselves for strength (some of us will go to god for that strength, others go elsewhere), and work for social justice every day. If some of us call that christianity, why argue?

Jesus never existed

What if there was no historical figure named Jesus? Set aside the question of the resurrection and just look at the rest of what we christians assume to be true. For example, I’ve always thought there was a firm consensus among scholars that there was a man name Jesus, from Nazareth, who was a great teacher and healer. While in a discussion with some hard core atheists, there was an insistence that there was no credible first-hand accounts of this man called Jesus.

My own christianity doesn’t center around the idea of Jesus as God. I’m perfectly content with the idea, even, that the resurrection may be just another metaphor for everlasting life through self-sacrifice and faith in god. Growing up I learned Jesus’ message was to love our neighbors, care for the poor, and center our lives around god. This message speaks to the core of my being and it’s why I consider myself christian rather than, say, Buddhist or Unitarian. My religion also centers entirely around the notion that the stories the Bible tells (which are metaphors as far as I’m concerned, not literal history) can help us be kind to each other and make the world a more peaceful place.

What then if there really was no Jesus as I’ve always assumed there was? Can I have faith in a myth? Can the idea of the story sustain me even if there was no human being who was so spiritually connected with God that he believed love and peace were the purpose of life? I’m not sure.

I set out to see if these arrogant know-it-all atheists from the newsgroup discussions were right. And it turns out they were. Even among the most Christian of historians, there are no solid claims of first-hand accounts of this man Jesus of Nazareth. Even the Romans who were serious record keepers probably only listed Jesus’ crucifixion as just another executed poor carpenter. A handy resource for my few weeks of research was the Frontline series, “From Jesus to Christ.” On this site there’s a good article from TIKKUN Magazine by Claudia Setzer that summarizes the closest any historian I’ve found will come to claiming there was, without a doubt, this man name Jesus. In this article, Setzer writes:

“His followers, and even a non-believer like the Jewish historian Josephus, recall Jesus as a healer, exorcist, and miracle worker.”

But going a bit deeper into the Josephus records I learned that even these are a bit sketchy. I wasn’t able to find any historian (besides a few Evangelical Fundamentalist Christians) who would claim there was first-hand evidence that Jesus existed.

Personally, I don’t find this troubling. I also don’t find it anything close to proof that the man didn’t exist. However, it does cause me to question what matters to me in my faith.

When I consider if Jesus was a real man who taught such important lessons, who washed the feet of the prostitutes and dined with lepers and tax collectors, I realize it really is that message that drives me. In fact, the earliest Christians seem most in tune with how I view christianity. While they did celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus (Christ) as their reason for being, their communities also centered around equality in societies where hierarchical social structures were the norm.

In my Dad’s most recent book, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis, he writes about the earliest Christians bringing together the bread and the wine. He writes:

“This was part of ‘the work of the people.’ But the very poor among those members typically could not afford to bring wine. So they brought water (which, according to cultural mores, was perfectly appropriate). That water they poured into the large, common chalice, mingling it with the wine from the others, so that, in the end, there was then only one offering. All social, political, and cultural distinctions were thereby countermanded and transfigured…Thus, for what Christians today is often merely a routine act of traditional symbolism–biblically rooted, to be sure, but not of major ritual importance–was for those early Christians a profound and revolutionary public acknowledgment of a new kind of egalitarian society and a new kind of hope for the whole world.”

There are countless examples like this of the earliest Christians authentically living by Christ’s example. Christianity got off track, in my relatively uninformed and humble opinion, when it moved beyond the countercultural activism through spiritual connection and adopted hierarchical power structures.

I’ll admit my world was a bit rattled when I confirmed the argumentative atheists were right about the absence of first-hand historical proof of Jesus’ existence. I’ve questioned all sorts of aspects of Christianity, but always assumed there was no doubt that the man lived, taught, and healed. I don’t feel any closer to knowing if he was an amalgamation of lots of good ideas or if he was truly a living human being. After these searches, however, I do feel closer to my commitment to the message. Love your neighbor. Help the needy. Care for the Earth. Commune with god. Strive for peace. These messages are why I still consider myself a christian person.

christian with a lowercase c

My four year old says, “I’m Mary and this is baby Jesus” and proceeds to sing all the words to “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” The time has come for me to explain why I’m christian. And why I’m not a Christian.

“I’m a Christian” vs. “I’m christian.”

First let’s be clear. I’m not “a Christian.” The right-wing fundamentalists have taken over that term with disturbing voracity. It makes me sick to my stomach to risk being grouped with such generally hateful sorts. Christian (with a C) now means to me, and to so many I talk with, an almost drug induced state of bliss (denial of questions or doubts), glazed eyes (from crying tears of joy when someone is “saved”), rigid rules. Mostly, Christian with a C requires following the strict-father model of living. It means a woman has no right to say what happens to her body. It means taxing the wealthy, stripping social services to nothing, and expecting the poorest among us to support it all. It means same-gender love is wrong. I want nothing to do with Christian with a C.

I am christian, though. I strive to live like Jesus did. That’s the essence of it, how I explain it to my daughter. In four year old terms, it’s pretty simple. Love everyone. Do whatever you can to help rid the world of injustice. Forgive yourself and others for our human frailties. Know that all you can do is your best and that is enough.

The magical fairyland of miracles.

But what about the “miracles,” the loaves and fishes, the healing blindness, bringing people back from the dead? Or, as Maya asked today at lunch, “Are angels real?” My answer is also pretty simple. I don’t get hung up on whether or not those things are literally true (it might lean into the sort of magical fairyland kind of thing, would it not?) or if they are only metaphors and lessons. I recognize that humans wrote the Bible, so the stories are most likely stories. I take the lessons from them and move on.

But what about the rising from the dead? Again, I don’t get hung up. Literal or not it isn’t a huge deal to me. The lessons that we’re all Okay, that we are always forgiven for our mistakes, and that the power of god is bigger than any human — that’s enough for me.

The truth is, though, at this moment I believe Jesus literally came back to life. When I’m in my “maybe it didn’t literally happen” times, it doesn’t scare me. Those thoughts fit perfectly in my faith, believing the truth of it as miracle or metaphor doesn’t change the message.

I recognize being raised by a minister and faithfully christian mother has a great deal to do with the likelihood that I’ll not find the story of the resurrection in the land with dragons, trolls, and fairies. Then again, as we all know, it could have pushed me farther away from believing the story. And, again, while I do happen to believe it actually happened, it’s not the biggest part of christianity for me.

I believe christianity is a religion of social justice. Jesus ate with and talked with women. With tax collectors. With sinners and untouchables of all sorts. Talking seriously with such non-people was rebelious enough, but to wash their feet or share a table with them was truly radical. He told poor people that they were the most special of all. He said people should love their enemies. He was a teacher.

After the sadness and revulsion I feel for those people I feel are butchering Jesus’ messages, those cap C’s, I realized there was another great obstacle preventing me from embracing the christian label.

I don’t believe Jesus would want our worship. The Jesus I understand would not want us to bow down to him. He would not want to be treated as someone more special than any other person. He certainly wouldn’t want me calling him “Lord.” Teacher, sure, but Lord, no way.

So, how could I be christian if I won’t pray to Jesus? That’s the question I grappled with for about the last ten years. But my truth has found me and I know now that, for me, being christian means I want to be as much like Jesus as possible. I want to be bold, courageous, and intelligent. I want to stay centered in my connection with god in all times of my life, as much as I can. I want to forgive myself and others every minute of every day. And, most of all, I want to help change the world. I want to help my neighbors near and far. I want people who are suffering to find justice, and I want to help make that happen.

What about Jesus as 100% god and 100% human?

The other hangup I had when I didn’t consider myself christian was the stance that Jesus was 100% God, different than us humans. As with so many of my understandings of my christianity, I realize it’s an issue of translation. The miracles were probably story telling tools. Jesus was a great healer (this is historical fact, not religious belief, though the ideas of what kind of healing he did are disputed), but was he as powerful as god? In my view, no. In my view, Jesus was astoundingly good at staying connected to god. He was clearly “centered” as we might say today. Serene. At peace most of the time. In no great hurry.

Again, I find Jesus to be a role model for my spiritual life. I know from my own experience that staying connected to what I call god keeps me relatively sane. I know peace when I am strongly connected to that strength. It’s my view that Jesus really got it– he found a way to stay connected more often than he was distracted by daily life. He was the ultimately god-connected person. Whether that was through prayer and meditation, through yoga, through great conversations with loved ones, or through times of quiet, I don’t know. But from what I know of the man named Jesus, I can tell he wasn’t easily distracted from his source of peace and strength.

But surely, you won’t stand for the Father Lord King garbage, will you?

No. I won’t stand for it. Mostly. My conception of god is not at all paternal. I certainly don’t think Jesus would dig that kind of reference in this day and age. But, in those days when women were dismissed and not counted, using paternal references to describe power and strength makes sense. In the days of rulers like Kings and Emperors it makes sense that Jesus and others would use the language of the day. Shortcuts, if you will, to explain they believed that god was extraordinarily powerful.

When I go to church with my parents, or continue our search for a church that meets our own family’s needs, I spend a lot of time translating so I can tolerate the paternal and inegalitarian concepts and language used. I usually don’t even like to use a capital letter G on god, it’s too high-and-mighty for me. Through the translation, though, I can still hear the message:

  • Be kind.
  • Be just.
  • Be brave.
  • Care for those who need help.
  • Don’t put up with shit from hateful people.
  • Love yourself and others.
So as Maya plays Mary, sings the Christmas hymns with all her might, and hears a bit more of the Christmas story every morning when we sing Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel at breakfast, I feel good being christian. I feel honored that our child asks such probing questions, forcing me to articulate in the simplest terms what I believe. I always begin by saying, “Well, not everyone believes this,” or, “Some people believe that is true, but I don’t.” But I almost always end up telling her the truest truth I know. The most important thing is that we try to love everyone in the world and help people who need it most.
Later that day she was playing store and announced, “I work for the giving store. We prepare food to give to people who don’t have enough.”

I believe Jesus would be glad.

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