How to Know Jesus?

Jesus has no parallel in human history. So, why do we continue to care about him? Is it because he's here right now?


Of the many mysteries about Jesus, this may be the greatest: why we continue to care about him. Brave leaders and wise teachers by the score have passed through these 2,000 years, but none has continued to resonate like he does. 

From the end of his earthly life Jesus has captured and commanded hearts in every century and every land. (Christianity isn't a "Western religion"; Western ignorance of the ancient Eastern church doesn't mean it doesn't exist.)

Jesus has no parallel in human history.

How does he do it? Those who have experienced this authority or presence are largely unable to put it into words. They can't explain why others don't sense it at all, or why some glimpse only a tantalizing hint while others are knocked flat. In 2,000 years, no better words have been found: He rose from the dead. He's still risen from the dead. He's here right now.

In this context, the search for the historical Jesus seems almost laughably beside the point. You don't know Jesus by examining shards of 2,000-year-old pottery. You know him by meeting him today.

This inexplicable encounter continues to occur, and those who meet him fresh today can feel that same pull. But how is it possible to know him? To sophisticated eyes, his most vocal followers are embarrassing and ignorant, their politics suspect, their devotion larded with sentiment and narcissism. Raw contact with Jesus in the Gospels is not exactly reassuring; both compelling and perplexing, he challenges easy comprehension.

Thus an idea begins to form that the real Jesus is buried somewhere under all the enthusiasms of generations past. If only we can strip away the moss, we'll see the real Jesus. We sense instinctively that Jesus represents the best of humankind, and conclude, not quite logically, that he must subscribe to whatever ideals are currently in fashion. He embodies, we assume, whatever features we most admire in ourselves. We set out in search, carrying a pocket mirror for reference.

If our age thinks the biggest sin is political oppression, and the greatest heroism is revolution, then we assume that Jesus was chiefly a leader of rebellion against Rome. Popular romantic images can be easily laid over this ancient enigmatic figure. No more sappy, blue-eyed Jesus; now he's dramatic and courageous, offending religious authorities and battling the Establishment. (A British ad agency even brought out a poster of Jesus in the likeness of Che Guevara.)

Now the Gospels are easy to read: Whatever fits this template is authentic, and whatever doesn't was invented by misguided followers.

It's a touching tribute that people want to attribute to Jesus their own highest ideals. When they presume that he embodies their pre-existing opinions, they pay him their highest compliment. It is a childlike gift, "a uniquely great expression of sincerity."

The words are those of Albert Schweitzer. In 1906, he wrote a book titled "The Quest of the Historical Jesus," which surveyed the research to date. Attempts to locate the "historical Jesus," Schweitzer explained, had been going on since the middle 1700s. Writers were often unaware of this and astonished to find that the ideas they thought shocking and original had been proposed by someone else 100 years before.

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