So Reza Aslan, writing for the CNN Belief blog, “raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” spent a summer in an evangelical summer camp and came away with a picture of Jesus His Best Friend, something he had never heard or considered before.
Then he went to college, began serious scholarly studies, and came to the conclusion that Jesus was not who evangelicals said he was. That that, in fact, was all hokum.
I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed — those his society deemed unworthy of saving.
A not-unfamiliar story. But also hokum. And by that I mean, despite the many many attempts to divide a “historical” Jesus from the “Christ” of faith—a faith manufactured for reasons that are as varied as the scholars who propose theories—he cannot be broken in this way.
All we know of Jesus is what is found in the canonical Scriptures. (The so-called Gnostic Gospels date later, although they may contain fragments of material dating back to the first century.) They were written most near the time of his earthly sojourn and display the most richly hued rendering of his purpose. Notice I don’t say his life. The Gospels are not conventional biographies, with each year of his existence carefully segregated into distinct chapters and all the various influences adumbrated so that by the time we get to the adult, we think we know the person and what made him or her tick. Instead, in the New Testament, we are told only as much as we need to know about Jesus’s birth, childhood, and adult ministry so that his purpose, his mission, is made theologically coherent—reaching back to the very Creation of all things; moving through the Passover and Exodus, with their themes of liberation, freedom, and new beginnings; right up until Roman occupation and continuing until “the end of the age.”
How does one separate the Jesus who chats with the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John with the Jesus who, in the earliest Gospel we have, Mark, written before 70 AD and while the Temple still stood, is forgiving other people’s sins? Not people who have sinned against him, mind. But who have sinned—full stop. If this is an invention, then what is its purpose? If it is to show he was mad, then no one should be modeling her life after him. If it was to argue that only God can forgive sins, then why tell a lie that could so easily be refuted by living witnesses? “No, no—I was there. THAT NEVER HAPPENED.”
Before the Gospels were composed, before the Temple had fallen, we have Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, in which we read this:
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
This has become such a familiar passage that even believers fail sometimes to come to terms with how remarkable it is. Before any “system” of a new Christian religion could be devised, centuries before the Council of Nicea and the emperor Constantine supposedly turned Jesus into God, we have an ex-Pharisee, ever mindful of the perils of idolatry, reciting what had already become formulaic within the nascent community of Christ followers: that Jesus had identified himself with the Passover Lamb, that Jesus was writing a new covenant with God’s people in his own blood, that Jesus—”the illiterate, marginal Jew”—was making himself the mediator between God and humanity, such that anyone who dared come to that table subsequently and did not (a) recognize the Lord’s body and (b) examine himself to ensure he ate worthily would be chastised. By God.
Because they offended an “illiterate, marginal Jew”?
But Dr. Aslan thinks he knows the real Jesus better than did Paul or the biblical authors. He is convinced he can discern a shadowy historical figure between the lies of the Apostles and those to whom they entrusted the “traditions,” that is, all that the Holy Spirit taught them and brought to remembrance regarding what Jesus had said to them (John 14:26).
Of course, such traditions must be mere superstitions. But again, how do you discern fact from legend? Well, we take what we like, what reinforces our own preconceptions of goodness, what sits comfortably with our worldview, and our class, and our peer acceptance, and we disdain the rest. And write bestsellers.
But, of course, Dr. Aslan is by no means alone in this. How many Christians do the same? How many conservative, “orthodox” Christians do the same?
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.
While Jesus cannot be broken into neat historical/theological halves, he was nevertheless broken—for you. And when we come to the Table, we consume the broken Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Really. Not symbolically. Which is why there are consequences for doing so inappropriately. Which is why some communions fence the table and restrict who can commune.
So before we get too self-righteous about the scholars who think they know better about who Jesus was and what he came to do, let’s think also about those of us who think we know better about how Jesus communicates himself to us today.