It’s great when pop culture creations push us back to our history. In fact, such times are for many of us amnesiac American Christians the ONLY times we think about our history! So when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ appeared in theaters around 5 years ago, sparking again century-old questions about the historical Jesus, this historian rejoiced:
Christian History Corner: Just a Closer Walk … with the Historical Jesus
Mel Gibson’s movie raises again the question: How much can we know historically about Jesus’ life and times?
By Chris Armstrong
The Passion of the Christ looks to have secured its place financially among the movies that have grossed the most during their opening week. Its $23.5 million first day‘s take puts it in the company of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” series and the latest “Star Wars” movies.
While it is a good bet that many of those attending the movie this week are Christians, it is also a good bet that many do not share Gibson’s conservative Catholic piety or evangelical Protestants’ theological commitment to seeing Jesus’ act as one of substitutionary atonement.
This is just another reminder that the American fascination with Jesus—which begins with his Passion but radiates out to every aspect of his life and times—transcends theological camps.
Just a few examples
Even in the current climate of Middle Eastern unrest, thousands of the devout and the curious still hope someday, before they die, to visit the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
We re-enact each Christmas, on our front lawns and the small stages of our churches, the events of the Nativity. We meditate, our minds a romantic haze of camels, sand, and rough-hewn inns: what would it have been like for Mary, in that harsh, impoverished environment, to have that baby?
Over the years, controversial discoveries like the Shroud of Turin or the James bone box have attained blockbuster status because they promise to bring us closer to the physical presence of Jesus.
The erstwhile headline-grabbing Jesus Seminar has titillated us with its promise to reveal the “real historical Jesus”—as a Jewish mystic, or a wandering revolutionary, or something even more wild, foreign, and unsuspected.
The apocalyptic stories of Hal Lindsey and Jerry Jenkins have commanded sales in the millions by dwelling in a sort of loving horror on the circumstances surrounding His personal return.
In other words, theology aside, we Americans can’t seem to shake this urge to get closer to Jesus of Nazareth—”in the flesh,” or as close as history can bring us.
Of course, most of us know that many of the images conjured by this urge are fanciful. As debunking scholars love to tell us, everything we know about the Nativity is wrong—there was no inn; there were no donkeys; and the Three Wise Men may have been neither three, nor wise, nor—even—men. And the competing claims of Holy Land sites supposedly related to the life and death of Jesus render our touristic “walks in His footsteps” more exercises of the imagination than journeys of historic research.
So, we may ask, what can we know about the life and times of Jesus?
The answer: a great deal. During the past few decades, much excellent scholarship has uncovered details of first-century Jewish and Roman culture that put Jesus’ teachings and the birth of Christianity in the context of his time. Westminster Abbey Canon Theologian N. T. Wright, Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson, and other scholars have greatly enriched our understanding of, to take just one example, the religious and political motives of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots.
When we at Christian History set out a few years ago to review the historical record on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, we discovered a world of information. This became the basis of our Issue 59: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Here is how we introduced the topic of what we can really know about the historical Jesus, in the opening pages of that issue:
“Christians and non-Christians alike have argued over the ‘real’ Jesus since the first century. Conclusions have ranged from the merely odd (like the Gnostic Jesuses who spoke with mystical vagueness) to the absurd (some have argued Jesus didn’t even exist).
“Recent historical scholarship has narrowed our options substantially. Ironically, we now know more about Jesus and his world than we have in centuries. ‘One scholar poignantly joked that the third quest for the historical Jesus threatens to become a quest of the historical Galilee,’ remarked a book reviewer recently. ‘But the joke is based on stunning success.’
“The first quest ended at the beginning of this century, when Albert Schweitzer showed that nineteenth-century biographies of Jesus merely made Jesus into a nineteenth-century person. The second quest began in the middle of this century and ended with skepticism: Rudolph Bultmann and his disciples believed nothing historically reliable was to be found in the Gospels.
“We’re now on our third quest for the historical Jesus. Though it’s gained notoriety because of the skeptical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, it has been a stunning success indeed. In the last 50 years, manuscript discoveries and archaeological finds have enlarged our understanding of Jesus because they’ve helped us understand the world of first-century Palestine as never before.
“As we embark on the third millennium since Jesus’ birth, then, we can know not only that Jesus really walked the land of Palestine, but we can imagine, with historical accuracy, what it would have been like to walk with him.”
We have no doubt that Mel Gibson’s movie will throw fresh fuel on the fire of America’s curiosity about the “real” historical Jesus.
Meanwhile, we can appreciate the thought, expounded by historian Ben Witherington III in Issue 59’s opening article, that the Gospels themselves are examples of ancient histories and biographies. They reveal compelling historical facts about the Man of Nazareth whose supreme sacrifice is now flickering across the screens of thousands of American theaters—and anchoring the faith of millions worldwide.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church’s past, is available at christianitytoday.com/history
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