Part 1: Why it is probably a good idea to know something of the history of the First Century A.D.
We cannot know who Jesus is, unless we take the time to know who Jesus was. The Jesus of much of modern Christianity is more like an imaginary friend than a first century Jew living in Roman occupied Palestine. Our Jesus is known to go on long walks on the beach with teenage girls, stroll hand-in-hand with soccer moms through rose gardens, and give financial advice to stock brokers. He appears in our songs as a not-quite-tangible but still loving spiritual being. Sometimes (not as much anymore) we attach theological language to him in these songs. We speak of him with the language of atonement or justification as a sacrifice for our sins. Usually, however, we try to avoid getting too theological for fear of scaring off the uninitiated. Our worship tends to stick to the Jesus that we can keep as nebulously spiritual as possible. This pocket-sized Jesus radiates heavenly love for us and sometimes–if we go by the songs we sing–comes dangerously close to being our girlfriend. As far as the cross goes, our sermons usually simplify that message to fit the question, “How can I go to heaven?” Since most of us care a great deal about ourselves, this dual approach to Jesus not only makes us feel loved, but keeps us out of hell. Our churches have so honed their presentation of Jesus that we can accomplish all this in about an hour. Since most of us just want to get home in time for kick-off, this arrangement works well.
There is, of course, a problem with this arrangement. Too many people know Jesus as an imaginary friend and too few have encountered the Jesus of history, the Jesus of the first century.
Do we need to know the Jesus of the first century? Doesn’t Jesus transcend his historical context? Christians testify that Jesus has always existed and will always exist, so does it really matter what kind of world he lived in two thousand years ago? Or, as a kind, but skeptical, older saint asked me, “How is all this history stuff gonna help anyone get saved.” I suppose that if we can reduce the entire Christian New Testament to a manual on “gettin’ saved,” I should just stop here. But if part of what it means to know Jesus is knowing more about a first century Jew, then there is a great deal on the line. If being a Christian compels us to imitate a real person, a person who actually existed and still exists, then maybe it is enormously relevant for our churches to talk about history.
One day after class, a student of mine made a passing comment. He said something to the effect that he enjoyed my class because in it he felt like Jesus was a real person. I always remember the rare occasions that students take time to peel their eyes off their smart phones to say something positive about learning, so this comment stood out. It also stood out because it occurred to me that this very intelligent High School senior, raised by missionary parents, and attending a Christian school was not used to hearing about Jesus like he was a real person. To think that Jesus lived in a specific historical milieu like any other person we may study in a history class was a foreign thought to him. It makes perfect sense to us that our understanding Frederick Douglass’ Narrative Life would be enhanced by knowing something about the history of American slavery, mid-19th century economic life, social reform movements and the abolitionist movement, but to do the same thing for Jesus just seems unspiritual. Can you imagine if we talked about Josephus or Livy in Sunday School? If my life goal, however, were being more like Frederick Douglass I would be knee deep in anything having to do with antebellum America. Would something similar not apply to learning to be more like Jesus? As long as we can allow the façade of spirituality to keep us from encountering the real Jesus of first century Palestine, we will keep ourselves from actually knowing Jesus. Screwtape wins.
The fact is, we prefer Jesus as a non-historical, purely spiritual figure because we can re-create him in our image. In addressing this tendency, I am not talking about segments of Christianity that Evangelicals would recognize as liberal. Liberal theologians have gone to great lengths to attack the historical reliability of the Scripture, discount miracles, and reduce the divine to a psychological sensation. Their churches have all but died because people don’t want to drive across town to be told that it’s a good idea to love your neighbor. That liberal Christianity has produced a Jesus stripped of historical context is beyond doubt. Their attempts to reconstruct Jesus historically (such as the Jesus Seminar) always produce a Jesus who is strangely similar to themselves. No, I am not addressing liberal Christians, but I do bring up liberalism because it appears that evangelical Christianity has done much the same thing. Liberals of the 19th and early 20th century made a distinction between the “Jesus of History and the Jesus of Faith.” While we may staunchly defend the doctrinal stance that these are one and the same; our worship, our sermons, our radio stations, and our culture want nothing to do with the dirt roads of Nazareth. We have so removed Jesus from history that we are in danger of offering the same weak message. At least our songs are peppier.
I have described, or at least hinted at, a common Christian experience with Jesus. The notion that Jesus is more of a vague spiritual force than an actual person is one that I’ve developed more from personal experience than from surveys or poll data. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to produce data to corroborate the thesis that Christians know very little about historical setting of the New Testament. I have grown up in the Church. I have spent several years in the United States and Southeast Asia, but the majority of my life has been in Latin America. While I am an American, my experience reflects an exposure to various forms of Evangelical Christianity around the world. In these church contexts, I am told to love Jesus, but I am not given nearly as much to love as I would like.
There is a second way that we tend to experience Jesus–as Savior. This is good. The church is at its best when it is proclaiming the power of Jesus’ victory over sin and death through his crucifixion and resurrection. I hesitate to say anything critical on this topic for fear of being misunderstood, but I am convinced that it is necessary. Most of our churches capably communicate the power of the cross, the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. Yet, they take for granted that their audiences actually know Jesus. In venues where the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus are reaffirmed–as they should be–Jesus becomes a bit too much of a wooden character. If all we talk about is his death for us, Jesus becomes more a fact than a person. We imagine ourselves under his blood, his body on the cross, but in our imaginations he doesn’t really perform any actions nor do much of note. He just is.
I’ve heard pastors and youth pastors say on more than one occasion, “the only reason Jesus came to earth was to die for our sins.” Wait a second! He only came to die? What’s all that other stuff that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John spent so much time on? Are the sermons, the healings, the miracles, and conversations, just his efforts to try and get himself killed? If we value Jesus’s death at the expense of his life we not only make the gospels impossible to understand, we make the Jesus we read about in the gospels out to be petty. Was Jesus involved in some cosmic purpose that had something to do with the Kingdom of God, or was he running around healing people and ticking off Pharisees so they’d go ahead and kill him?
In short, our churches are doing a poor job of helping us know who Jesus really was and how we can understand the Bible in its historical context. Our churches are filled with people who are only mildly impacted by Jesus of Nazareth. If they were to really encounter the Jesus that the four evangelists portray, the Jesus of history, they would either turn away in disgust or fall down in worship. In other words, people who are in love with the real Jesus don’t just stop coming to church; those who encounter the real Jesus and don’t fall in love with him plot a crucifixion.
This is the first article in a planned 6-part series. You can read Part 2 here.