The Five “Biggest” Myths about Jesus

jesusThe Daily Beast has a fun article by Candida Moss on the five “biggest” myths of Jesus. She gets most of it right except for one.

1. Jesus wasn’t tall and white. “He was a socially and politically disenfranchised man with tanned skin who was living under the hand of an oppressive foreign government. He didn’t enjoy the privileges of white men today.”

Check.

2. Jesus wasn’t the messiah the Jews expected. “First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David.”

Basically yes. Other options included a priestly messiah, prophetic messiah, and heavenly arch-angel messiah (see John Collins’ The Scepter and the Star). In the gospels Jesus is presented as a variant combo of the prophetic and heavenly arch-angel.

(X) 3. Jesus wasn’t a pacifist. “Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth’ (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple.”

Frankly this is silly. As presented in the sources Jesus certainly stands as a pacifist. Mt 10:34 is a blatant metaphor about severing family blood ties in favor of fictive kin, and so obvious that not even the crusading theologians of the medieval period tried using it to justify the holy wars (they got pretty creative in distorting biblical passages but didn’t bother attempting with this one). And if Jesus used a whip to drive out the money-changers, that hardly disproves he was a pacifist.

4. Jesus wasn’t that concerned about family, but was strongly opposed to divorce. “Jesus identifies his followers, rather than his biological relatives, as his family, and instructs his disciples to leave their old [families] behind and follow him. The one place Jesus is truly supportive of marriage is when it comes to divorce.”

Check. Many of us implicitly (and regardless of our religion) subscribe to the philosophy of “love your families and hate your enemies”, but Jesus was known for “love your enemies” and “hate your families” (Lk 14:26).

5. Historians know almost nothing about who Jesus was. “There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was. The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it, but…it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical.”

I’m afraid I have to agree. I’ve been increasingly less confident in efforts to reconstruct a reliable historical Jesus (beyond a bare-bones apocalyptic prophet). I’m glad to see William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus cited: “Historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because ‘the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.'” Though I’d put it a bit differently. Historical portraits always matter, but at least we shouldn’t “need” a historical Jesus to ground any of our contemporary agendas.

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