It might go without saying that since Jesus is important to Christians, knowing what Jesus actually did and said would be an overriding preoccupation. In fact at times there seems to be an unholy alliance between Christians and atheists in wanting to discover the real, historical Jesus.
For Christians the argument is simple: we follow Jesus and therefore we need to know who he really was. For atheists the argument goes like this: Christians make claims about Jesus’ divine status, so we need to investigate the recorded facts to disprove those claims. My argument is that the real, historical Jesus hasn’t much to do with faith at all.
Don’t misunderstand me, as a historical puzzle, who Jesus was, and what we can know about him,is endlessly fascinating. Trying to deduce which of his sayings are original and which of the gospel accounts is more historical can be addictive. But . . and it’s a big but . . it has little to do with faith.
First, Christians are not Jesus-ians. They don’t follow Jesus, they follow Christ. Indeed they don’t follow Christ, they are in Christ. As Paul says, they are baptised into Christ, his death and his resurrection. They are one body in Christ, and a new creation. A Christian’s faith journey doesn’t begin by
investigating the real, historical Jesus and making a decision about him. It begins in the community of faith and baptism into Christ.
Secondly, it’s in the community of faith that Christians read their bible. And for them, the bible isn’t a history book, it is, as they say, the living word of God. They don’t therefore try to extract from its pages the real, historical truth, or the one true message. They look for the gospel stories to speak to them in their situation today. In the theological college, those old forms of criticism – source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism – have given way to reader-response criticism, narrative criticism, deconstructive criticism, social criticism and feminist criticism. The job of the preacher is not to dig out the one true historical meaning from the text but to make meaning with the text. The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us whatever its origin.
Thirdly, theological doctrines cannot be proved and disproved by historical research. The classic example is the resurrection. When Christians say in their services “The Lord is here” or “Christ is risen” they quite clearly don’t mean that a 2,000 year old Palestinian man has just walked into their church. In the gospel stories, the risen Christ does not appear as a resuscitated corpse. The disciples don’t say “Oh, we thought you were dead! You’ve come back to life.” Jesus hasn’t been brought back to life to die again like Lazarus. This is the risen, glorified Christ in a risen, glorified body. Resurrection is not demonstrated by history. It’s demonstrated in the lives of those who have been “raised with Christ” and “live the risen life”. As Paul puts it: if there is no resurrection, no living the risen life, what’s the point?
And finally, the fulcrum of faith is now. Faith doesn’t revolve around the axis of the year dot or even the year 32 CE. It hinges on the present. Anything that tempts us away from engaging with the present should be put behind us. To say the historical Jesus is a devil in disguise maybe a step too far. It’s the risen Christ we should be seeking in our neighbour, in our rituals, in our lives.