For Christians, Christmas is the birth of Jesus, one of the two biggest holidays of the year. Jesus, in most of Christianity, is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God and God: as the Nicene Creed proclaims, “one in being with the Father.” Jesus and Christ have become synonymous around the world.
Who was Jesus? We don’t really know. For those who want a serious look at who Jesus might have been, I recommend starting with the books of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. For those wanting a more popular approach, try Reza Aslan’s book ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.’
But here’s the thing: no matter what you read, you are still not going to know much about Jesus, a baby birthed to a woman, a toddler who learned to crawl and walk and talk, a teen who suffered through puberty, a male who grew to be a man, a man who lived a shorter life span than most other men of his time who on average lived to about 50. You will not know much because the evidence is so sparse.
Yet many want to meet that Jesus, the man who lived. As scholar Claudia Setzer pointed out to PBS over 25 years ago, there have been at least three separate waves of searching for the historical Jesus. One was the Protestant push in the 1700s and 1800s to explain Jesus rationally, a view refuted by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book that declared their view of Jesus as irrelevant. To Schweitzer, Jesus is not important; only the Christ matters. Next, in the mid-20th century, Germany led the search for the real Jesus, claiming that the accounts in the Gospels “grew out of the mythos of the early Church.” The German effort led directly to the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s and 90s, which attempted to peel back the layers to determine who the historical Jesus was and how much of the Gospels might be considered as historical fact, events that actually happened.
Let’s leave mythos aside. Any piece of writing is influenced by when it was written, the intended audience, and the reason for the writing. In the Gospels, we have four different writers writing at four different times for four different audiences. Surely, some of the events they described were factual. Surely, some were not. The gospels are stories of faith. They are narratives for believers to believe. They are not histories or biographies in any modern sense.
I often say that if I could travel back in time to meet just one historical figure, I would travel back to meet Jesus. I have so many questions. What was Jesus thinking? What was he trying to do? All my reading and studying leads me to believe that in many ways, Jesus wasn’t special: people in his time and place believed and taught that the end times were imminent, and that Jewish people needed to reform, to become more pious and holier. For this, we have evidence, particularly from the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have evidence that there was nothing extraordinary about his method of death: crucifixion was common in the Roman Empire, terribly so.
Yet Jesus, of all those with similar ideas, became the Christ. The faithful will say, “Because he is God.” As someone who is not Christian, I continue to wish I could “meet” the Jesus who was a man.
I don’t know if Jesus the man would have made much of an impression on the world. But Jesus as the Christ has influenced the world. As Shaunaka Rishi Das, Director of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, explains, in Hinduism, Jesus is an acharya, a spiritual light in the world. To Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), Jesus and Buddha were kinds of brothers; Thay explains in his book Going Home the connection between resurrection and mindfulness. In Islam, Jesus is one of the greatest spiritual messengers, a righteous servant of God (but not God), one to be deeply respected. In fact, as the Muslim Unity Center points out, “no Muslim can be a Muslim unless he or he believes in Prophet Jesus.” As we might expect, not least because of the terrible persecution of Jews over centuries done in his name, Judaism does not revere Jesus.
Jesus, whoever you were: happy celebration of your birthday. Happy continuation day. To Christians, merry Christmas. May we all embrace what we do know for sure of Jesus’s message: to treat each other with love and compassion, as brethren, to be cherished.