The Jesus of History and the Holon of Christ

Ed. note: There’s a link from a pod at Gaia where this article of mine that was previously blogged on the now defunct (dead-link) team blog integralchristian site, so I re-post for any interested.  I thought it was on this site already, but it wasn’t, so I apologize for that lacuna.

There is no Jesus of History.

Let me back up for a second, lest any misunderstanding take place. By stating there is no Jesus of History I do not mean (as some have ignorantly argued) that the human being Jesus of Nazareth is a literary cipher for a series of Pagan Myths and did not in fact live as a real person.

That argument runs something like this. The Gospels portray Jesus using imagery and symbolism from other Near Eastern god-hero myth complexes: e.g. Virgin Birth, worked wonders/miracles through healing touch, dies & rises etc. Therefore Jesus himself did not exist. What this argument confuses of course is that these myths were common cultural assumptions about a Savior-Messiah figure, so that if one were to going to write a religious account to convince people of the Rabbi Jesus as Savior-Messiah figure, one would obviously use the common metaphors of the day to prove this reality.

The Roman pagan author Tacitus in the 1st century describes “a certain Chrestus (Christ) the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate….” so there is attestation outside the Christian gospels for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

When I say there is no Jesus of History I’m talking about something else.

In the last decade and a half there has been the revival of interest in the so-called Historical Jesus. Jesus is hot as one publisher told a Historical Jesus author. There are almost as many historical Jesus-es (Jesi?) as there are Historical Jesus scholars.

Jesus is alternatively depicted as (much more after jump):
–Shaman Healer
–A proto-Marxist social peasant revolutionary (ever wonder why they Che photo is so beloved….it taps into the Christ of our collective psyche).
–A traditional conservative Christian
–An apocalyptic prophet of the end time
–A Cynic philosopher who told counter-cultural tales
–A spirit-filled wisdom prophet
–A man suffering from a split personality—one human, one divine.
–A (pacifistic) Jewish Rabbi
–A member of an armed revolutionary group against the Roman occupation.
–An anti-Temple Establishment man trying to create a post-national Judaism
–A Gnostic preacher of Causal Consciousness and/or Lover of Mary Magdalene

And finally one of my personal favorites: a gay magician.

Though not known by many today this is the third great phase of Historical Jesus Research in the scholarly world. The first occurred during from about the late eighteenth century through to the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s (yes that Schweitzer) great work The Quest of the Historical Jesus. This Jesus it turned out was a 19th century European bourgeoisie rationalist not an ancient Palestinian Jew. He looked more like the ideal social person of the day than the actual man in the Gospels. Thomas Jefferson (orange meme) famously stripped the Gospels of any “irrational” pieces like healings, exorcisms, resurrection, leaving only wise rational sayings (parables)—religion within the bounds of reason alone that is.

What Schweitzer pointed out was that this Jesus was simply the projection of European enlightenment values into and onto the past. [We will return to this point later because it is still today relevant]. He boldly proclaimed that the quest was a failure—and then added his own Historical Jesus to the pile of rubble for good measure.

With the publication of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1926), Biblical scholarship moved to searching no longer for the Historical Jesus but the historical context (the life-situation, lifeworld) of the authors of the texts themselves (see Rudolf Bultmann). This followed Heidegger’s reflections on being-in-the-world, the intersubjective over the historicist objective right-hand approaches of empiricism and historical studies. As is well known the Gospels are all written 40-70 years after Jesus’ death, in vastly different social and political contexts than Jesus’ own day. What the Gospels are then are stories of what would Jesus be like if he lived in the situation of the author and the community that composed the text. Post temple destruction Palestine (Mark); Gentile Church in Turkey (Luke); a Jewish-Christian community in Syria (Matthew); and a group expelled from the synagogues (John). This phase was less the search for the Historical Jesus as the search for the Historical Church. This tradition was highly skeptical of knowing anything about the Historical Jesus and a result interest in the subject waned.

Interest was temporarily revived by the second phase of the Historical Jesus search began in the 1950-60s with the work of German scholar Gunther Bornkam, but it too eventually waned with the explosion of interest in feminist, liberationist, and postmodern readings starting in the late 60s and into the 70s.

But in our day we see the study of the Historical Jesus again waxing. The third phase gained real steam by the early 1990s. Well known names include: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, N.T. Wright, John Meier, Elaine Pagels, Paula Fredriksen, and Richard Horsley.

The third phase of Historical Jesus scholarship has sought to overcome the problem of the first—namely the infiltration of background cultural assumptions onto Jesus. The proponents of this Third Wave argue this could be achieved through a renewed look at the social-cultural-religious world of Jesus’ own day. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, the knowledge of 1st century Palestine has exploded. These authors use what is known of contemporary Judaism (or rather Judaisms, as they were multiple strands of the religion it turns out) and Greco-Roman world, to decipher which points of the Gospels make sense against that background and which do not.

There has been much good work by these scholars and I do not want to diminish the efforts. I have learned a great deal from reading all these scholars. Still one can’t help noticing that the author’s own background correlates very strongly with the reconstructed Jesus.

–John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus looks remarkably similar to a 1960s counter-cultural hippe figure. Crossan did his research in 1960/70s California. Crossan also had a falling out with the establishment of his church—the Roman Catholic. So too does his Jesus rebel against the religious establishment of his own day.
–Paul Zahl’s Jesus promotes traditional Protestant Reformed Evangelical Theology. Guess what strain of Christianity Zahl comes from?
–Elaine Pagels and Karen King, the two best known scholars behind the revival of interest in Gnosticism, are both women, who continually stress that the Gnostic Churches had equal gender parity and authority roles.

So given a quadratic and post-metaphysical understanding, I think it is safe to say there is no way to avoid such infiltration. There is no objective truth (historical included) except in intersubjective circles. Notice this trend is common across liberal-conservative spectrum. But what can be done is a much more honest assessment and critical reflection on one’s own background and belief systems.

There is a famous dictum first proposed so far as I know by the historical Jesus scholar John P. Meier: there is a difference between the historical Jesus (that is the scholarly reconstruction of Jesus) and the Jesus of history (the actual man who lived in 1st century Palestine). This is a Kantian move. There is the noumena (the thing as it really is, i.e. the real Jesus) and the thing as we experience it the phenomena (the historical reconstructed Jesus) and we shall never know the former.

But following Wilber in Integral Spirituality, the separation of these two (noumena and phenomena) is itself already another perspective. Does it really make sense to say like Donald Rumsfield that we there are “known unknowns” like the Jesus of History? The notion of the Jesus of History always already only exists in the mind of a thinker. The Jesus of History is always already a perspective before it is anything else. Meier’s dyad correctly makes a distinction between our interpretations and the earlier person or event—in this case Jesus—but it still looks for an point separate from perspectives, some Euclidean point at which you can lever the world around.

Perspectives does not mean pure idealism [see footnote on pp.250-251 of Integral Spirituality]. There are, Wilber says, intrinsic features to sensory experience and I would argue to Jesus. But these intrinsic features of the Kosmos “sub-sist” in the earlier waves they do not “ex-ist”; they do not “stand-out” in other words. Moreover, intrinsic features are themselves shaped by the level of consciousness from which they are described. They are interpretive intrinsic features which are then read back (retro-read) into the earlier situation.

I believe Jesus was a great liberator of the poor (intrinsic feature) but that feature only came to light (existed) since the rise of liberation readings in light of socio-political liberation movements of the modern and postmodern worlds.

So that leads me finally back to my original sentence. There is no Jesus of History. The separation between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of History is not wrong but itself is a product of the level of consciousness at which the claim is made (orange, formal rational cognition). An integral worldspace would negate that distinction in favor of a Kosmic Christ Jesus, a multi-perspectival Jesus.

Why the third phase of the Jesus scholarship has failed is that it has not taken into account levels of consciousness. It correctly spotted the mistake of the first phase, the lack of recognition (in integral terms) of the collective quadrants. Where it (partially) fails is not recognizing how even our understanding of the social-cultural is itself a product of the level of consciousness of the scholarship. Whether it is the social-cultural realities of our own day or Jesus’. These scholars know that our own time and temperament is never separate from their scholarship. But they have not imagined how deep that truth runs.

In other words the Historical Jesus is just another form—consciously or otherwise—of devotion to the Christ. New Testament Scholars often make the distinction between the Jesus of History and the (post-resurrection) Christ of faith. Liberal scholars emphasize the discontinuity between the two, conservatives the similarity but the deeper issue is the distinction itself is inherently problematic. The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are both perspectives. In fact they are mutually co-arising and therefore dependent on one another, like left and right hands.

The Historical Jesus is a type of faith then. The Historical Jesus is another form of the Image, the Higher Self that pulls us into its tractor beam. It is therefore, truly not just a scholarly quest, but a religious one as well. It is part of the Christic evolution of Consciousness itself.

Jesus never wrote anything in his life and this explains in part why he is interpreted across so many boundaries in so many ways:

–Liberator of the Poor
–Kosmic Judge of the Universe
–Gnostic Visionary
–Meek and Mild Jesus of Evangelical Spirituality
–Walking God-Man Icon
–Stern and Angered Medieval Lord

Jesus is depicted visually as African, Near Eastern, European, Asian, Latin American, male, female, trans-gendered. In beatific transcendent glory and in the deepest suffering and humiliating ugliness.

The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is even, one scholar argues, the image behind the lone gunmen of Western movies: taciturn, he fights evil, woman-less, friendless as he rides off into the sunset with only a small boy yelling to him—Shane, Shane….Jesus is Risen.

What all of this comes down to is this: different truths arise in different levels (developmental signifier/signified), from different vantage points of the effluxive dance. Different Jesi arise in different spaces and levels.

What this outlook reveals is a holonic Jesus, a holonic Christ. It would show that there has never been and will never be a Jesus of History separate from perspectives about him taken up by others. Rather there is a Jesus arising in worldviews that believe in History.

Rather than a flatland Jesi fighting each other (liberal versus conservative, Jewish Jesus vs. Christian Jesus, apocalyptic prophet or social and ethical teacher), we start a catalogue (a glossary) of the multiple perspectives on Jesus emphasizing the place from which a person stands to make such reconstructions/claims (quadrant + altitude + state).

This view does not mean Jesus Christ can not and does not break into the conditioned and sinful parts of our heart-minds, individually and collectively. That there can not be anything new and therefore in the truest sense, revelatory. That The Christ is unworthy of discipleship for all that Jesus is is whatever we make him out to be, to fulfill our own ego needs. All of these views of Jesus and more have come to teach us something.

As Mary Magdalene (ed:sister of Martha not of Magdala–thanks to commenter who pointed out my egregious error) took a jar of perfume and broke it to anoint the body of Jesus (Gospel of John) until the aroma filled the whole house, so too must we break open the Historical Jesus so that his aroma, the Aroma of God, may fill the entire Kosmos.

Published in: on March 10, 2008 at 8:26 pm  Comments (19)  

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  1. As a New Testament scholar interested in film (see my recent book “Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination), I enjoyed this post a lot. However, you have perhaps watched a few to many Jesus movies. “As Mary Magdalene took a jar of perfume and broke it to anoint the body of Jesus (Gospel of John).” This is Mary, sister of Martha. NOT Mary Magdalene.

  2. S,

    Thanks for the comment. Mea culpa. That’s a major unforced error. I’ll have to check out the book.



  3. Thanks for this honest, frank post. This resonates with a lot of folks we’d call “mosaics” who understand that context always plays a role in how we form our views and opinions. As an undergrad, I came to very similar conclusions in my thesis paper entitled “A Postmodern Hermeneutic.”

    I found this post refreshingly candid. Well done.

  4. In your (inadvertent?) deconstruction of historiography itself, you appear to have laid out an impressively varied smorgasbord of coequal dishes including every conceivable flavor of Jesus except Yeshua the Nazarene, a rustic rabbi said to have taught Torah compellingly, performed inexplicable public acts in the name of YHWH and been executed for his criminal attacks upon the sacrificial Judaism of the late Second Temple Period.

    (Also, the Heidegger reference is quite out of place, as German Historicism was a late-19th Century function of Hegelianism. And there really is only one other wave of historicism, traceable to the late-1940s and the 1950s. The Christologists well into the 1990s, and halcyon days of the Jesus Seminar, were the students of those postwar historicists.)

  5. tof,

    thanks for the compliment. much appreciated. glad you found some truth in it.

    peace. cj

  6. hv,

    thanks for the comment.

    i was not/am not saying historiography is bunk. this isn’t a relativist outlook.

    I’m saying that historical inquiry is never separate from the worldview of the author, the reader, the times. not reducible simply to competing worldviews (I hold to hierarchial developmental worldviews, some are much better than others).

    Just that there is no final Jesus of history, no finally 100% objective or neutral description.

    e.g. With Funk, Crossan, and Borg they all come from a liberal tradition that believes (following the Reformation) that if we can get back behind the tradition somehow to the truth, the real thing/event then we will be freed from the burdens of traditions and the hierarchies that control them. So does their Jesus. Now I think that probably makes sense for Jesus, but it’s not disconnected from that reality within the authors themselves. They cite Thomas Jefferson and his cut and paste job on the Gospels as precedent for their Seminar work.

    Except of course that such a move is its own tradition, which collapses the project as an absolute venture. We are then freed to look at with more discerning eyes, find what is of lasting value, what not.

    And then it’s a separate question whether what is determined to be lasting value is actually the Jesus of history or what is necessary (as it were) for our view of Jesus in our day and age as disciples.

    The Heidegger rift more hand to do with his influence on Bultmann than the others. Apologies if that was unclear.

    As to the Jesus you mention, I did reference Wright (though not by name but with the post-nationalist Judaism). I’m not convinced it is a historical fact that Jesus was executed for acts against the Second Temple. I’m not convinced it’s totally wrong either. I’m agnostic frankly on most historical Jesus stuff.

    But on the temple. Paul never mentions any such thing; he shows traditional Jewish piety (latreia) towards the Temple. Acts said the early Jesus followers still went to Temple, like good Jews.

    If Jesus was railing against it why did they still go as if nothing were wrong? Even the Essene types stayed away from it out of a sense that it was corrupted.

    Paula Fredriksen is good on this point–relevant side point she’s Jewish… linking back to the argument I was trying to make. She points out that many of the criticisms of the Pharisees in the NT don’t work historically–healing on the Sabbath is not a huge deal.

    Actually my favorite historical Jesus is Geza Vermes’. Jesus as a hasidim in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha from Northern Israel. But I have no idea that such is the real Jesus, whatever that means. Again I see the historical Jesus much more in a devotional and discipleship life.

    I’ve read them all and truth be told I’m not sure I’ve learned anything more about the historical Jesus. I’ve learned a great deal in other regards, which is why I love them so much. But that so many very wise people can come up with so many different and contrasting Jesus portraits ought I think to give us serious serious pause.

    I’m suspicious of the entire project of using a literary-theological tract (a gospel genre) to find historical information. I think it’s mostly a category error. I think it creates too much room for the social, cultural, religious, and psychological influences of the author and his/her audience to intervene under the guise of history.

    Iow, I’m a real minimalist when it comes to historical Jesus stuff. There was a guy, he had some kinda movement, was originally a follower of the Baptist, people claimed he healed, he was executed by Romans, and (some of) his followers claimed to have experienced alive beyond death. This lead them to claim that he was the Righteous One of God.

    peace. cj

  7. That’s lovely actually, cj. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. As an historical anthropologist, I’m often obliged to state the vantage of my worldview at the outset, and I reckon that’s appropriate here also: I’m a milquetoast Fideist, the kind who would click his ruby sneakers as they smouldered in the pyre and chant, “Aunt Em, Aunt Em! There’s no place like home!” So I care about historiography, but have only a lay curiosity about the Jesus of History and very little use for the historical, or historiographical, Black Messiah or Yesh the Yid or Haysoos the Liberationist or whatever. I come down to your concluding paragraph, above. Were you to send it anonymously to one of my exegetical friends, they’d assume that I’d written it.

    I would like to affirm, however, that it is through a certain interpenetration of my historiographical training and my fideism that I believe that the untimely and torturous death of that particular rabbinical rustic was a direct result of his violent and illegal scourging of the sanctum in Jerusalem. (Come to think of it, similar displays trigger deadly violence and legal sanction at that same location even today.)

    I don’t assume that the early believers construed the implications of the Naz’s capital crime. The texts do of course suggest that He had quite a rap sheet of violations of both civil and religious law, and they suggest also that the religious authorities were not keen to make their motives explicit to the civil authorities.

    Finally, I’m a Girardian, and one trained to think in “historical time”, so as far as I’m concerned Christianity lasted about 30 seconds, and then sacrificial religion crept back in, presiding to the present day.

  8. CJ

    Do you see parallels to this situation in the other Abrahamic faiths namely with Moses and Muhammad (peace be upon them).

  9. E,

    Good question. Hadn’t thought of that one. There hasn’t been equivalent Historical Moses and Historical Muhammad’s to the same degree. I think that links with my argument that Historical Jesus is part of Christian devotion. So it wouldn’t work with Moses or Muhammad given their status in the respective religions.

    I wonder if a case could be made for the Quran?


  10. I think your right the devotional aspect is the key. I think in Christianity there is a greater degree of liberalism in scholarship and contemporary western civilization affords the cultural backdrop to push the enveloped so to speak.

    Whereas in Islam it is only so far you can deviate from the definitive narrative of who Muhammad is, before you are called a deviant and a fatwa of death is issued against you.

    Judaism has long established root i.e. customs and traditions that makes it difficult to offer an alternative narrative.

    Also Islam and Judaism offer sources outside of their respective divine revelations, in Islam there are the hadiith and the in Judaism to written oral traditions and the Talmud, where as in Christianity the New Testament remains the only authoritative source. The lack of established roots allows the contemporary scholars to twist and change Jesus to address the concerns of the day.

    As far as the Qur’an, I’m trying to understand what exactly you are asking?

  11. e,

    I think in the sense that the “equivalent” if there is one (as I see it) to the role Christ plays in Christianity is the Quran not the Prophet in Islam. Similar to the Torah in Judaism not Moses per se.

    Or maybe something like Reza Aslan’s book which is a literary narrative reading of the history of the ummah. The story has a transformative calling aspect that a simply historical facts exploration would not.

    More like “as if” approach.

    My question was probably vague cuz I’m still thinking through this one.

    All of the historical turns to the Quran so far have generally been pretty tinged with animus (e.g. Patricia Crone). I think a lot more could be done in that regard and similarly with the hadith. And again it could be done in a way that is deeply religious as opposed to Enlightenment only skepticism.

    Peace. CJ

  12. Ahh, I understand your point.

    The religious establishment in Turkey are undertaking a review of the Hadiith in a contemporary light, which I agree is also needed.

  13. have to see what comes out of that.

    peace. cj

  14. […] will know my agnosticism and general lack of appreciation of the entire Historical Jesus Quest (see here) but even more so the dreaded debate on what Jesus Really […]

  15. Your first assertion, that “There is no Jesus of history”, is fraudulent, and surely you know it. Historiographically, we have a Jesus of Nazareth to deal with. We have him in Greek. We have him in Aramaic. We have him in Coptic and even Syriac. We have commentators sympathetic to him, and commentators who couldn’t give a damn. Proto-Christian; Offended Jew; cosmopolitan Roman skeptic. You name it.

    Trained historians know how to place these fragments into their proper context, how to winnow and weigh them as delicately as the latest erudition might permit. But you make of yourself a perfect boor with your opening declaration, “There is no Jesus of history.”

    Sorry. On the off chance that you really are after the truth, you’ll swiftly find that there are no shortcuts.

  16. Hugo,

    I think you misunderstood what I was saying. I was not saying there was no person named Jesus who lived in ancient Palestine.

    I agree that historiographically we have a Jesus to deal with, but it is one largely the creation of religious communities and they explicitly tell us they weren’t composing history (in our sense of the term).

    iow, The Historical Jesus scholarship is mostly in mind a theological project. In that sense it has a great deal to tell us about people’s faith. I think it has less to deal about the “real” Jesus.

    As even John Meier said, the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of History.

    I’m saying that the reconstructed historical Jesus is actually another Christ of Faith. All of them in their different ways.

    peace. cj

  17. That’s just right, by my lights, CJ. And I apologize for not having read you more carefully the first time.

    I hope you share we me a certain low-level excitement over the prospect that tomorrow’s news might bring word of breakthrough archaeological or philological understandings of a certain obscure but controversial rabbi of the Late Second Temple period.

  18. Hugo,

    No apologies necessary. I do share your “low level excitement”. peace.


  19. and peace unto you as well.

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