Browse the religion section of your local bookstore, and you will find dozens of recent books about Jesus. Every Christmas and Easter bring cover stories about Jesus in major magazines.
Why the continued interest?
"This unlikely character has long been accounted the central figure of Western civilization," says Thomas Cahill, author of "Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus." "Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth, we count our days by his appearance on earth. And, though our supposedly post-Christian society often ignores and even ridicules him, there are no serious suggestions for replacing him as the Icon of the West."
But that doesn't mean the image of Jesus has remained the same through history. Every year, it seems, some scholar makes a new controversial claim about Jesus.
Jesus, the revised version
The most visible of these revisionists is the Jesus Seminar. In 1993, this group of scholars published "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus," which claimed that Jesus did not say most of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. It also highlighted a "new" gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, which quotes Jesus as saying strange, unfamiliar things, like "I will guide her [Mary] to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven."
Since then, other Jesus Seminar volumes have appeared on The Acts of Jesus, speculating whether his deeds actually took place, and The Complete Gospels, which provides other controversial texts such as the Gospel of Mary, the Sayings Gospel Q, the Signs Gospel, and the Secret Book of James.
Another revisionist writer is the Episcopal Bishop John Spong, whose books argue that Jesus was not the product of a virgin birth, that Jesus was conceived illegitimately, and that Mary was possibly the victim of a rape. Among Spong's other theories are that Jesus was married, perhaps to Mary Magdalene, and that the Apostle Paul was a frustrated, closeted homosexual.
Also, many of the new Jesus scholars say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. John Dominic Crossan thinks Jesus' corpse was thrown into a Roman garbage dump where it was eaten by dogs and birds.
Marcus Borg says that the resurrection could not have been captured on videotape, since it was not a historical event, merely a subjective reality experienced by the early church. What was important to the first Christians, says Borg, was not that the tomb was empty but that they had mystical experiences of Jesus' ongoing presence, much like those who grieve recent deaths imagine that their loved ones speak and appear to them.
Redefining Jesus--and questioning his historicity--have been a favorite pastime of scholars for more than a century. But this latest round of revisionism is different because it's playing out on a very public stage. By writing for a popular audience and maneuvering for wide media exposure, these Jesus scholars have brought the debate right into American living rooms.
The popularity of the "alternative Jesuses" has caught many traditional Christians off guard. While some tend to ignore the debate, orthodox scholars have risen to defend the traditional Jesus.
In a postmodern world, where faith is built on experience more than rational proof, defending the validity of the faith would seem to be a relic of days past. The challenge of postmodernism will be more than rational--"Could Jesus have risen from the dead?" It will also be moral--"Why are Christians intolerant?" "Why do they suppress women?"
But while postmodern faith will rightly expand the criteria for judging faith to include community, experience, and relationship, even postmodern Christians need to anchor their experience in a historical Jesus.
Defending the faith in the context of the new Jesus scholarship becomes more complicated, however.
Consider C. S. Lewis' classic "Mere Christianity," which presented the famous "trilemma" about who Jesus was. If he wasn't really God, then he was either a liar who deliberately misrepresented himself or a lunatic who was mentally deluded about his own identity. But if he was who he said he was, then he must be Lord and God.
Today the trilemma of liar, lunatic, or Lord is not quite so simple. Now there is a fourth alternative: legend.
Lewis' trilemma depends on the assumption that the Gospels are straightforward, historically reliable accounts of this first-century Jew from Nazareth. But revisionist scholars claim that the Gospels as we have them do not accurately record the words and deeds of Jesus. They attribute the Gospels' contents not to truthful history but to later invention by the early church.So today, when non-Christians read the Gospels, many are skeptical of the records of Jesus. While previous generations accepted the Bible's information about Jesus as reliable, today's culture raises the question, "How do we know Jesus really said and did all this?"
Equally damaging to Christian faith is the assumption of a division between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith." Skeptical scholars assume that there is a large gap between Jesus, the historical first-century Jew, and the divine Christ that the Christian church worships in its creeds and hymns. They presume that the Gospels are inaccurate because early Christians superimposed their concepts of a divine Christ figure upon their accounts of the human Jesus.
As a result, revisionist scholars produce alternative portraits of Jesus. He may have been a social prophet, a wise sage, a cynical philosopher, a Jewish peasant or a failed zealot revolutionary, but he certainly wasn't God. That idea was just a later invention by the early church, skeptics say.
Accounting for Easter
For all its savvy publicity, the Jesus Seminar does not represent the mainstream of current biblical scholarship. For example, most reputable scholars consider the Gospel of Thomas as apocryphal and originating in the second century--far less historically reliable than the four Gospels, which can be dated as early as 60 C.E.
Furthermore, conservative and liberal scholars agree that the earliest documents of the New Testament, the letters by the Apostle Paul, show that the early church acknowledged Jesus as both Lord and Christ within two or three decades of the death of Jesus. The time span is too short to fabricate new legends about Jesus, since eyewitnesses would still have been alive. This suggests strongly that the historical evidence is on the side of the authenticity of the Gospels' resurrection accounts.
"The New Testament bears strong and credible witness to two important pieces of historical data: an empty tomb and reports of post-resurrection appearances of the risen Christ," writes Jeffery Sheler, religion editor at U.S. News and World Report, in his new book "Is the Bible True?"
"Even the most skeptical of scholars concede that something extraordinary happened in Jerusalem after Good Friday to account for the radical change in the behavior of the disciples who fled in fear at Jesus' arrest. Could Jesus' resurrection account for the fact that within a few weeks they were boldly preaching their message to the very people who had sought to crush them?"
Indeed, many evangelicals argue that the very emergence of the early church is the strongest corroboration for the resurrection of Jesus. There is no other plausible way to explain the birth of the church if Jesus did not rise from the dead.
Some of the strongest rebuttals to the Jesus Seminar come from Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, who has been hailed as one of today's leading first-century historians. His 700-page tome, "Jesus & the Victory of God," argues that the Gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did fit in perfectly with what we know about first-century Judaism and thus would not have likely been fabrications by the early church.
Our problem is that Christians usually begin with the presupposition that Jesus is God, so we read the Gospels with the conclusion already settled. But the Jesus Seminar and others challenge us to leave these presuppositions behind. We instead must begin where first-century Jews and 21st-century historians must begin, with a young Jewish prophet who said and did remarkable things.
When we begin with the human Jesus, and start assembling the evidence of his work and identity, we discover a man who was unlike anyone who ever lived. He worked miracles, forgave sins, and spoke wisdom that confounded the scholars of his day. And in his final journey to Jerusalem, where he was crucified, he embodied the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets who foresaw the Lord's return to Zion.
Ultimately, the new spate of Jesus books challenges Christians to rediscover anew who Jesus really is. We must take the skeptics' claims seriously and research for ourselves the reasons why Christians have proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ for two millennia. While we may never fully grasp the mystery of Jesus' own self-awareness, we can piece together a portrait that leads us to the conclusion that he must have been God in the flesh.
Christians have nothing to fear from historical Jesus research. The more we study, the more we discover that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same.