September 04, 2006

Role Your Own Jesus

Jesus was a really great guy. He said a lot of things with which it's hard to take exception, and He's got a lot of clout in spiritual circles. Everyone wants Jesus playing for their team; every religion seems to find some niche for Him in its theology. For Islam, He is a great prophet. For Buddhists, he is a Bodhisattva. For Hindus, He is a great swami or avatar. For the cults, He is "a god" or a special creation of God. And for liberal Christians, He is a great spiritual teacher and moral example.

If you can employ a biblical quote from Jesus to make your point in a religious debate, then you can imagine you've scored big points — especially against someone who holds to a more traditional view of Christianity. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work the other way around; a classical Christian can't get much leverage for their view by appeal to Scripture.

In a dialog with liberals and non-Christians you will often hear them say things like, "Jesus just wanted us all to love and accept each other" or, "I think Jesus was just an enlightened human, like Buddha." And then they will appeal to some snippet of the Bible in support of their case. But how is it that they know anything about Jesus from which to form such opinions?

Our only source of any detailed knowledge about Jesus is in the Scriptures. However, the very thing that unites liberals and those of alternative religions against historical Christianity is the rejection of the reliability of these Scriptures. In order to reject doctrines such as the bodily resurrection, the deity of Jesus, and the final judgment, they must first have convinced themselves that it is all just an allegory or that myth and error have invaded the texts. Unfortunately, this leaves them with a problem.

If you've rejected the reliability and historicity of the biblical documents, then how do you know which parts are corrupted and which parts hold the truth? What good are they to your portrait of Jesus if you can't count on them as a credible witness? But the antagonists of orthodoxy do quote certain texts to support their theology, as though such passages had escaped corruption and were to be taken literally. However, if you present clarifying or "competing" verses to them they will brush them aside as so much litter.

So, have these people with the "real" portrait of Jesus found the magic key for sorting the good verses from the bad? In a sense, yes: The "key" turns out to be their own personal opinions on the matter. They may have picked up their notions about Jesus from some imaginative books or religious leaders, but in the end it is their own thoughts and winnowing of these ideas which drives them. When approaching the biblical texts, it is those passages that support their original thesis which survive their credibility filter.

Unfortunately, short of divine revelation, there is no reasonable way of getting at what Jesus really said and thought if the primary witnesses — the Gospel writers — have made a mess of the job. At least Mormons and Muslims, with their supposed divine texts about Jesus, have some hope of playing in this field of competing claims. Most people, however, are leaning on nothing more substantial than their own feelings to justify their interpretive approach.

Could something like the Gnostic texts help us to get at the "real" Jesus? Well, I suppose they could, in theory, but how would you be able to know that? If one has issues with the canonical texts, which even many liberal scholars place in the First Century, then one has even worse problems making the Gnostic texts authoritative. That is because they didn't even begin appearing until the mid-Second Century.

But it's not as though those who appeal to such documents are seeking to be orthodox Gnostics; they don't really believe that this is "authentic" Christianity. If you were to start ascribing specific Gnostic beliefs to someone appealing to the Gnostic texts for their alternative Jesus, they would most probably be insulted by your presumption. In practice, such persons do nothing more than add these additional writings to the buffet from which they fill their spiritual plates. There is no divine and authoritative canon to which someone like a New Ager or liberal Christian may look in order to set boundaries upon their wild speculations.

So, the next time you hear someone making a claim like, "Jesus was all about loving people, not judging them," you could respond with something like the following.

How do you know what Jesus was like? You can have no clue, since you reject the reliability of the Bible and you have no authoritative and accurate revelation about Him to which you may appeal. Your view is simply based upon your own imagination and desire for what you want Him to be like. By that measure, my imagination is as good as your own. And since the earliest writings of the Christian community and the consensus of the historical church is on my side, then I feel quite comfortable sticking with my own "opinion," thank you.

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At 9/04/2006 6:14 PM, Anonymous CB said...

How right you are! Whether ironic or sincere, the person of Jesus is invoked to validate just about every spiritual claim you can think of. Yet, as you say, skeptics and those of other spiritual worldviews alike seem to want to play both sides of the field: In the context of orthodox appeals to scripture, any Biblical reliability is at best scoffed at, yet when waxing apologetic in regard to their own views it seems as if Jesus was Himself one of them! Jesus was a Hindu, or Jesus was enlightened, or Jesus was a Marxist, or Jesus was a shaman, but Messiah or God-incarnate? Certainly not. Fortunately, for the Christian, only the Biblical record firmly addresses the person of Jesus. Any link between Him and these other worldviews is absurdly ad-hoc.

At 9/04/2006 8:04 PM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

Excellent article, Paul! I had just gotten done trying to debate a JWAALP (Jesus was all about loving people) dude when I saw this. Comments here. They don't seem to understand they are lifting quotes from a book they've just burned. Neither do they seem to consider the consequences of following a straw Jesus like the TV "Book of Daniel" Jesus.

Your "Jesus" photo hits the nail on the head. Good work!

At 9/10/2006 11:08 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...


I think this article makes a good point, but I still want to raise a dispute with it. It could be that we have a misunderstanding.

Your argument seems to be that liberal Christians and others cut off the branch they're sitting on. They have a particular view about Jesus, and they rely on the Bible to support their view. Yet at the same time, they deny the overall Biblical portrait of Jesus by denying the reliability of the Bible. Denying the reliability of the Bible, while at the same time depending on the reliability of the Bible for their portrait of Jesus is inconsistent.

You said:

Unfortunately, short of divine revelation, there is no reasonable way of getting at what Jesus really said and thought if the primary witnesses — the Gospel writers — have made a mess of the job.

I don't entirely agree with this, and I think there was a time when you wouldn't have either. A long time ago, I made a post on my blog about how it's not necessary to assume the Bible is the inspired word of God or wholly accurate in order to discover true things about Jesus. We can discover that Jesus claimed to be the Christ, that he was crucified for that claim, and that he was raised from the dead by the use of ordinary historical methods and philosophical reasoning apart from any assumption of Biblical authority. In the comment section, you seemed to agree, and you even linked to a post on your own site where you argued something similar.

Most scholars who do work on the historical Jesus do it without any assumption of Biblical authority, yet they seem to be able to reach conclusions based on the evidence, and there is even wide concensus about a lot of things. There are arguments that support different portraits of Jesus.

You also said:

So, have these people with the "real" portrait of Jesus found the magic key for sorting the good verses from the bad? In a sense, yes: The "key" turns out to be their own personal opinions on the matter.

You are probably right about that in mose cases, but I don't agree it's true in all cases. For a lot of people, it isn't just their emotional desires or subjective filter. It's because they've done historical research on the topic, or they've read books and articles that made historical arguments. This allows them to come to conclusions about what Jesus did or didn't say or do without assuming Biblical authority or relying merely on their personal feelings or opinions.

Don't worry, Paul, I don't totally disagree with you. I think that as a generalization, your article is right on. But at the same time, I think historical methods and philosophical reasoning as a method of discovering truths about Jesus was completely ignored in your article. It sounded as if you think we have to take an all or nothing approach to the Bible--it's either inerrant, and we have to believe everything it says about Jesus, or it's errant, and we can't know anything about Jesus. What I meant to say in this reply is that there's a third option--the Bible is errant, but we can still discover things about Jesus through historical and philosophical reasoning.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. I just think your article may have set up a false dilemma for liberal Christians and others who want Jesus on their side, but who don't want to subscribe to everything the Bible says about him.

At 9/27/2006 1:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...


In case I wasn't clear in the article, my target was primary liberal Christians, pseudo-Christians, and members of other religions. By definition, these persons reject the major doctrines of classical Christianity, which are grounded in the Bible. This means that they reject the big-ticket, main-point items recorded in the writings. And if you reject the general message, from whence comes your confidence that any given detail has merit? It's as though someone rejected a heliocentric solar system, but then appealed to a modern astronomy textbook for individual facts when building their own cosmology.

While we might find flaws in the details of the testimony of a murder witness (e.g., exact time, eye color, etc.), if they've picked the wrong assailant or weapon, then the whole testimony is suspect. And if one were to believe in advance that all his witnesses to a crime were biased, dishonest, and/or prone to cryptology, without any way to get at the truth, then the theory he derived from their joint testimonies would probably look very much like what he brought into it in the first place.

I can certainly appreciate differences in understanding the Scriptures, but one must first think that the texts are an attempt to record actual sayings and events without involving mischief or mythology before one can join the orthodox conversation.

Those academics who believe it to be a heaping mess, yet try to peel away the layers of mythology to get at something of the "real" Jesus, also tend to bring their presuppositions to the task and find in it a Jesus looking very much like their own idea of a wise or "enlightened" man.

It's curious to me that everyone has Jesus coming out as a good guy. It seems that those most inclined to question His character are most likely to claim He just never existed in the first place. I'm sure they exist, but I've not yet run into anyone claiming that Jesus was a Jewish ganef (scoundrel), although I have heard many slanderous claims made about most every other religious founder. Buddha gets a pretty good review by most, but the dude did abandon his wife and kid after all! But I guess that's okay; they were just another part of the illusion that he was escaping. But I digress.

At 8/31/2007 12:38 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Ha! I just realized I mispelled "Roll." Ironically works as it is, though.


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