Mark Vernon revisits an old question:who did the baby turn out to be?
It’s Christmas time. It’s the winter solstice. It’s our appropriation of the Saturnalia. Yes, yes. And it’s the official birthday, in the west, of Jesus. So it’s timely to revisit an old question: who did the baby turn out to be?
I’ve been reading around the latest in the quest for the historical Jesus and it’s striking how much has settled in the last few years. Quite a lot about the man is now agreed and what’s agreed amounts to quite a lot.
Aside from the occasional conspiracist, no-one now doubts that Jesus actually lived. As the sceptic and religious studies scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, summarises in How Jesus Became God (2014): “Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state.”
Of course, many of the things that the gospel writers say about Jesus are hard to verify historically, and some of them are clearly not historically accurate. Only Matthew describes wise men visiting him at the time of his birth. Only Luke describes shepherds visiting him as a baby in Bethlehem. But we should not be too surprised at these inventions. The gospel writers were more interested in conveying the significance of Jesus, rather than capturing the facts of his life. As was common at the time, they used mythical ideas and reinterpreted sacred texts, alongside historical events, to show what they thought was important.
Even when they say they consulted “eyewitnesses”, the implication is that these were people who saw the meaning of Jesus’s life, rather than individuals who knew precisely what had happened on such and such a day. Luke, for example, says he spoke with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2), and yet he’s apparently not bothered by historical discrepancies that show up even within his own writings. For instance, at one point he says Jesus was carried into heaven on the same day as the resurrection (Luke 24:51), whilst at another he says Jesus ascended forty days later (Acts 1:9).
A man of his times
The gospel writers all agree, as do modern scholars, that Jesus came to prominence, at about the age of 30, as a follower of John the Baptist. He’s another historically well-attested figure who gained followers, some of whom still live as the Mandaeans of southern Iraq. If you asked them, they’d tell you that Jesus was a great figure, but John was greater.
He certainly inspired Jesus to adopt the life of the charismatic, itinerant preacher. As the historian, Robert Knapp, summarizes, in a new book The Dawn of Christianity (2017): “After his baptism, Jesus stayed in order to meditate and gain focus for his personal message. He emerged from the wilderness as a charismatic leader in his own right.”
It’s also now widely agreed that his message included many teachings that any spiritual adept in ancient Palestine might have advocated. He stressed the importance of the Jewish law, with the inflection of the Shema that focuses the individual on love of God. He taught a version of the Golden Rule, in the form of loving enemies and turning the other cheek. He argued that personal religious practice and private contemplation was at least, if not more important, than temple and ritual worship, as other first century rabbis did: the synagogue was still a fairly recent, Hellenistic invention and a popular one.
The beatitudes were a common form that he used too. What is now known as the Sermon on the Mount parallels beatitudes found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Blessed is the one who speaks truth with a pure heart and does not slander with his tongue. Blessed are those who hold fast to wisdom’s precepts and do not hold to the ways of injustice. Blessed is the man who has attained wisdom and walks in the law of the Most High,” the Essenes wrote, much as Jesus presumably spoke.
However, there are differences. Jesus departed in certain, fascinating ways, some of which are still hotly debated by Christians, and none more so than the apocalypse. It’s in the news this Christmas, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem. So what was the babe of Bethlehem’s mature take on the expectation of last days and an end times?
It was a widespread view at the time, that God would dramatically intervene in history to vindicate the righteous. There was an expectation of a fiery future day of judgement that grew particularly in the centuries before the first century CE. The historian, Philip Jenkins, explores this background in Crucible of Faith (2017). “The need to see justice in the divine order inspired a vital new belief in concepts of the afterlife and resurrection, in ultimate rewards and punishments,” he writes.
But Jesus appears to have developed a striking take on this intuition. He thought that this kingdom was not going to come at some point in the future, but that it had already arrived. He believed that the end times were not to be anticipated but were to be seen now.
The reason to believe this is that sayings survive in which Jesus says so. Scholars like Marcus Borg argue they are authentic because it’s also agreed that not many of Jesus’s early followers concurred. They, in common with the many, stuck to the anticipation of a future arrival. The particular Christian inflection of this belief became the notion of the parousia or second coming.
But the historical Jesus does not seem to have endorsed it. His most probably authentic sayings teach otherwise. “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21). Luke also has Jesus observe that, already, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Luke 11:20). Mark has a number of sayings that imply the new times have arrived too (Mark 2:19-22). There are others from Matthew that could be cited, and further, the gospel of John does not have any descriptions of a future apocalypse at all.
My take on this innovation follows a lead from the thought of Owen Barfield. Jesus lived at a pivotal moment in the emergence of human inner space. This realm was where people increasingly felt they met themselves and the divine, as opposed to the older ways where a sense of self and gods were firmly located externally, in shared rituals, civic ceremonies, sacred places.
But by the first century CE, there was a distinct trend of interiorizing amongst wisdom traditions. The Stoics had their focus on self-cultivation. Mystery religions offered a personal realization. The Jews developed a vision of the individual standing before God.
The soul was being discovered and Jesus’s reform of apocalyptic teaching enforced it. The kingdom is not going to happen to this world. Rather, it is already the inside of the world. Those who have eyes might see it.
It was a confusing teaching. And many did not get it. Then as now, it’s easier to be concrete, demonize the present, and make the kingdom tangible and measurable. Evangelicals love a divine arrival at a time predicted by signs they can read. Liberals become preoccupied with the metrics of civic collapse and secular injustice and preach sermons that are running commentaries on the headlines.
Both delay the arrival. It’s clearly not yet, they say. So it’s striking that Jesus seems to have taught it’s here already. You might even say that his birth underlines his novel perception, at least as John saw it. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1: 9-10).
Mark Vernon is Head of Philosophy at the Idler Academy. He is the author of Plato’s Podcasts, The Meaning of Friendship and God: All that Matters.