The Jesus Nobody Knows

May 7, 2000


The Jesus Nobody Knows

Most of us, when we were kids, thought we had a fairly good idea what Jesus looked like. No one had told us that the gentle, handsome face on our Sunday School cards was entirely the work of artistic imagination. Jesus probably looked very much like his contemporaries, who were first-century Palestinian peasants, but we have nothing to show us what they looked like. So artists tend to paint Jesus in the image of their own nationality, and out of devotion to make that image idealistic . Their pictures have no validity at all. In fact, one of the earliest known portrayals of Jesus as the good shepherd shows him clean-shaven, which he almost certainly would not have been.
We are so captured by the life and thought of Jesus that we make up romanticized pictures, unable to imagine a face anything less than Hollywood perfect. No one likes to consider the possibility that he could have had uneven teeth and a slight squint in one eye, that he may stood only 5 feet 2 inches and walked with a limp from a childhood accident. Moral perfection, we would like to believe, should mean physical perfection as well. I mention these things so that when we realize how we have sanitized and glorified the image of the physical Jesus, we can begin to understand how his adoring disciples may have glorified and expanded some of the stories of his life when they began to write a generation or two after his death.
I suppose it will seem odd to some believers that I have minimal interest in knowing what the Palestinian Jesus looked like. For me it is his life which inspires my vision of human potential, and that influence is not affected by the fact that his closest disciples left no description of him, or that the places Israeli guides point out to Christian tourists as his birthplace and his tomb are almost certainly wrong.
For this, and other reasons, I am responding this morning to questions often asked by believers and unbelievers alike. One of them, about what we would see if we had an actual photograph of Jesus, is impossible to answer as I have suggested already. But another question is more serious: If we could have known the actual first-century Jesus of history, how much would he have resembled the Jesus we read about in the Gospels written by devoted followers? The question hints that there is far more than his appearance that is unknown to us, because despite the tremendous importance of Jesus to about a sixth of the world’s population, we have only the slimmest kind of actual biography.
No one, for example, knows exactly either the date of his birth or the date of his death, and as might be expected of stories first pulled together 30 to 60 years after his death, no one tells us things we would love to know about his childhood and adolescence — quite probably for the simple reason that no one knew and there were no official records to consult. But even that early, there were followers who wanted to fill in this huge gap, and in their writings have the child Jesus do such trivial and demeaning acts of magic that the later church was wise to exclude them from the canon of Christian scripture.
Even the extremely brief period of his life in which our present four Gospels are interested is poorly defined in terms of how many months were involved, and there is much vagueness about exactly where he did certain things during much of his short public ministry. And although each successive piece of writing about him grew more adoring and reverential, we get a surprising glimpse of how his unconventional views upset many people when the earliest gospel tells us (Mark 3:20-21) that his own family thought he was out of his mind and wanted to put him under restraint. Think what a historian would give to have authentic testimony from the siblings of this remarkable man as to what he was like in the 90% of his life of which we know nothing. And much as it may wound traditional devotion, the fact is that we also know almost nothing about either Joseph or Mary as real human beings. The little handful of words attributed to Mary create problems of interpretation, and Joseph is all but invisible despite what must have been his considerable influence on a growing child.
It is a commonplace of biblical scholarship, of course, that what we have in the New Testament is not the Jesus of history but the Christ of fatih. If this is true, it would be in line with other transformations of historical figures whose lives are remembered in light of the greatness they achieved at the climax of their careers. The Abraham Lincoln of history, for example, was not simply the great brooding figure enthroned in the monument, and we know this because we have documents to prove it. If the real Jesus was truly human, as the church has insisted — if he was “tempted in all the ways we are,” as one sacred writer tells us (Hebrews 4:15)— then there had to have been moments in his life about which the Gospel writers either knew nothing or preferred to keep seperate from their devotional descriptions.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else, had not experienced the historical Jesus, so even though he wrote before any of the Gospels were written he has nothing to say about the physical reality of Jesus. He makes no reference to miracles or to other physical deeds. The point is that neither Paul nor any other writers of the New Testament were interested in giving us biographies of the real, historical Jesus. They presented him not so much as he was remembered but as he was believed.
When Gary and I set out to sketch a life for purposes of a funeral eulogy, what we want above all else are anecdotes. Birth and death dates have some statistical importance, but personality and character are built between those events, and personality and character are best presented through anecdotes. If either of us sits around a table with friends and family of the deceased, no two of them will present their friend or relative in exactly the same way. One tells an anecdote, another corrects it slightly because he was present at the event or heard about it differently. The stories of Jesus show the same kinds of recollections.
This is not to say that the stories falsify him, only that different people see different things in the same person. Socrates was memorialized by three Greek disciples: Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon, all of whom admired him tremendously, yet they give us three personalities so different that we are left with the riddle of the “real” Socrates. Any careful student of the New Testament knows that there is something of this riddle in our four Gospels. I have said that Paul, writing before the Gospels were written, did not seem to have much interest in quoting the words of Jesus. Mark, earliest of the Gospel writers, did not think the words of Jesus were important, either, as compared with Matthew and Luke. Mark says Jesus taught, but rarely tells what it was that he taught. Matthew and Luke, on the contrary, have extensive collections of the words of Jesus, so extensive that scholars think they sometimes have collected early Christian expansions of the words of Jesus.
In the words of one of my favorite Catholic scholars, Father John McKenzie, “This means no more than that early Christian communities often asked themselves what Jesus would have said to this or that situation, and that what they thought he would have said developed into what he did say.” This is a common view among biblical scholars but I’m sure it sounds strange to any of you who grew up as I did, believing that the Gospels created the church. In fact, the opposite is true. There were thriving Christian churches over much of the Mediterranean world before the first gospel was written. It was the church that created the Gospels. And in one sense, those who wrote the Gospels began as rivals rather than as collaborators. It is obvious to a careful student that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a guide, but felt he needed to be expanded, improved on, even corrected at times. Luke freely admits this in an opening sentence which says that although others have written their stories, he has studied matters more carefully and has come up with a better account.. John, who surely must have known at least one of the other three Gospels, chooses so decisively to go his own way in presenting Jesus that his Gospel is 90% different from the others.
Since this is not usually mentioned in pulpits, it might be useful to demonstrate this for a moment by comparing John with Matthew, Mark and Luke. For brevity’s sake I will refer to the last three as the Synoptics, a name given to them because — as the word means — they generally “see alike” as opposed to how John sees things. Here is a quick run-down of some of the differences. The 3 Synoptics begin with John the Baptist or with the birth of Jesus and one or two words about his childhood; John begins with the creation of the world and has no birth or childhood stories at all. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus speak in homely, concrete parables and tersely stated maxims or aphorisms; John has Jesus speak in long, abstract, involved discourses with no parables at all — a difference so striking it is almost impossible to believe both accounts can be accurate.
In the Synoptics Jesus is presented as a sage who draws lessons from the simple practical events of daly life; in John he is a philosopher and a mystic. The Synoptics present Jesus as an exorcist; John mentions no exorcisms at all. In the Synoptics Jesus has little to say about himself, making the rule of God his theme; John presents a Jesus who makes himself the theme of his teaching, and talks about himself constantly. In the Synoptics Jesus strongly espouses the causes of the poor and oppressed; John’s Jesus has little or nothing to say about them. In the Synoptics the public ministry of Jesus lasts one year; in John it lasts three years. And just one more difference, a truly fascinating one: the Synoptics have Jesus use his last meal before his death to institute the Lord’s Supper; in John’s account of this night there is no mention of this at all. Instead, John replaces that famous story with one about how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and told them they must follow his example and do the same for one another — a piece of advice which, in literal terms, the Christian world has almost totally ignored.
Since this illustration of the various ways of telling the Jesus story is not common to pulpits, I should add that the different approaches do not mean Jesus is a made-up character, as poorly-informed college students like to say sometimes to shock the orthodox. They do not know that there is evidence outside the New Testament for the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Besides, if the early church had been deliberately creating a fiction it would surely have edited out contradictions and presented a single unified portrait, but it leaves us instead with a real person who, like any real person, was remembered differently by those looking back at his life. A common opinion, which I share, is that these sometimes conflicting views of Jesus make his genuine existence more rather than less credible.
Is it a perfect book, this New Testament which confronts us with so many problems if we try to know the historical Jesus behind the Christ of faith? Has it been miraculously preserved from odd gaps and contradictions? A serious student has to say No to both thosequestions. Did any of the devoted followers of Jesus, as his actual life faded from view, ever embellish that life to justify founding a church in his name? If not, they would have been the first and last in history who did not expand on the merits of their hero.
But the power of the life of Jesus remains one of the true wonders of the world. I am glad, with countless others, to call him Lord of Life. I believe that those who embrace his spirit will live lives as abundant as humanity can ever hope to manage. I know this isn’t enough for some, who must have an extra-terrestrial, a wonder-worker, a divine alien so far beyond our comprehension that it is impossible to think we might truly be like him. But for other great Christians it has made sense, and for me, of all the tributes I have read, I like best one with which Albert Schweitzer closes his unparalleled book about the historical Jesus.
“He comes to us as One unknown….as of old by the lakeside he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, Follow thou me…… He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they ;shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
They learn never simply by the words of others, be they priests, preachers or proselytizing neighbors, but “in their own experience” because finally, there is no other way. I know this not only because Schweitzer says it, but because my own life gives me proof. When I respond to life in the spirit of Christ, I am happy with myself. When I forget, and do otherwise, I feel diminished. My faith — and the faith of this church — is summed up by that long-ago disciple of his who discovered what we have learned: “In him was life.”

We believe, gracious God, that the truth about Jesus is that he knew the secret of happiness
and wanted desperately to share it. The truth about us is that for all sorts of reasons we think we are
happy enough and stop listening. Change our minds, we ask in the name of our Lord. Amen