What do we know and is relevant about Jesus?

Around ten years ago I had a Jesus biography.

It went like this:

In Galilee, a man called Jesus (Jeshua, Jehoshua) began teaching, preaching and healing. As many were known by this name, he was called Jesus of Nazareth after the town where he grew up. As his fame spread south, towards Judea, he was also known as Jesus from Galilee. After a very short period of activity, somewhere around three years, he was taken prisoner and executed.

There were many preachers and teachers like Jesus at the time. Some protested against Roman occupation, others at the indifference and corruption of the people and especially the local Jewish leaders acting under the Romans. Many such preachers were executed. Death on the cross, used in Rome only against slaves, was commonly used in the colonies against all kinds of protesters.

Herod the Great (37-4 BCE) achieved his own power by servility towards the Romans and repression towards the people. He was hated, and this lives on in the legends connected to Jesus's birth.

Although there is little reliable detail about the life of Jesus, and the early church developed its theology about him, the editors of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), drawing on earlier oral and written sources (and prior Gospels in the case of Matthew and Luke), did base their accounts on the real historical man. In those days there was a tradition of memorising, not on paper as now, but in the oral story telling of the people, which was often detailed in content. The writers and editors then used this material for their belief and community purposes, centred around the the expectations of Jesus and the world around them (including after his death).

Faith in God, one God, had developed in the region. This was a God of the prophets, who spoke, forbad and got angry, although it was the people who acted in history and through time. This is different from many other religions where scriptures tell stories of the legendary acts of God/s and their manifestations. In Judaism God was said to intervene only in the context of human history and actions, being a people on the move.

However, in Jesus's time there was also the strong sense that crisis meant that the last days were upon them. Using the Tanakh's (Old Testament) prophecies and hopes, there were beliefs about the coming of some man or figure who would bring about the end of the chaos and bring in a new reality. This would be utterly new and constitute salvation. One belief was in a human liberator, anointed like a King; another was in a figure who would serve the Lord, take on all suffering and begin this land of salvation. It was not known whether this absorber of suffering would be an earthly rebel, a king or or some supernatural hero "appearing on heavenly clouds". All these views of the end-time were more accepted by heretics and less accepted by those in the religious authorities, aware of them as they were.

The Sadducees were the priests of the time, conservative about the faith and opposed to change. They condemned Jesus before his execution. The Pharisees were more liberal, believing in the resurrection of bodies on the last day and they stressed the Law less in favour of inner religion. Whilst Jesus criticised the "Pharisaic principle" of hypocrisy and self-satisfaction, he was friendly with some Pharisees and Paul of Tarsus himself spoke of inner religion freed from the bonds of Law.

The heretics were of two main kinds. There were the Zealots, a politico-religious opposition who wanted to overthrow the system, and there were also those who were fairly withdrawn and were waiting for the soon to come saviour figure. Many of Jesus's followers came from those who were withdrawn or denying the world, centred around the rather strange individual John the Digger (Baptist). But there were also Zealots in Jesus's followers (including the disciples).

Jesus's baptism and period of isolation (self-testing and reflecting) began his public work. His use and adaptation of both heretical and orthodox beliefs with his expectation of a cataclysmic end framed his teaching that the Kingdom was at hand. This Kingdom would elevate the poor. It would all happen before "this generation" passed away and it was vital that everyone changed and became close to God. This demand, his personality, and not least his healing, drew followers and, along with his actions, eventually led to his death by the authorities.

Notice I stopped at his death. I didn't refer to beliefs today or authentic faith or any such thing. That was for discussion.

The question of relevancy starts in that this man is very strange to us. He believed in things that many also believed in at the time and which, in general, we do not. We do not believe intellectually that this world will end, except when the sun swells up. His society, his culture, his ways of thinking are gone. Some of the same human relationship problems remain, but the outlook, the very way we live and think and relate meaningfully are utterly removed unless we are members of certain millennial sects very sociologically distant from the norm of society. We think of solutions in the technical sphere and are far more in basic assumptions and practically living atheistic.

Some suggest an authentic Jesus can be discovered. But this is the old modernist illusion that there is a "religion of Jesus" that is different from the doctrinal "religion about Jesus" (as the Unitarians once put it). Some hope this is possible with the work of the Jesus Seminar today. But you cannot strip away the supernatural of any kind to produce an authentic Jesus for today. Jesus was supernatural, in his very assumptions about what made the world operate and proceed.

Whilst it is possible to produce a humanist Jesus, he becomes in this just one more variant on the many Jesuses around today. Whilst this may seem more natural to contemporary times, I would have thought plain and simple ethics rather than idolising a particular man was more intellectually authentic for today.

If people need to "follow" this particular man then it will need far more than a once Unitarian method or from what, say, the Jesus Seminar speculates upon. Faith, to be faith, will have to involve add-ons and story and speculation and commitment and obedience. Whilst the traditional Church-Jesus is distorted and often simply misleading, the Jesus of his time is roo remote and strange and the Jesus of humanism has lost his relevance. We are left with postmodern Jesuses - so take your pick and make faith with or without one of these.

Adrian Worsfold