Letting Go of Jesus

Let’s pretend the year is 1748 and you have just come away from reading a new treatise by David Hume called an “Enquiry concerning Miracles.”  Let’s assume you are a believing Christian who reads the Bible daily, as your grandmother taught you.  You normally listened to her because in her day most people still could not read, and if families owned a book at all it was likely to be the Bible.

Part of the reason you believe in God, and all of the reason you believe that Jesus was his son, is tied to the supernatural authority of scripture.  You have been taught that it is inspired—perhaps the very word of God, free from error and contradiction—passed down in purity and integrity from generation to generation, and a  reliable witness to the origins of the world, humankind and other biological species.

You know many verses by heart:  Honor your father and your mother.  Blessed are the poor.  Spare the rod, spoil the child.  The love of money is the root of all evil.  –Lots of stuff about disobedient children and the value of being poor, confirmed in your own experience: there are many more poor than rich people, and children often don’t listen to their parents.

Based on the bits you have read and heard preached about, you think the Bible is a wise and useful book.  If you are a member of an emerging middle or merchant class—whether you live in Boston or London or Edinburgh—you haven’t read enough history to wonder if the historical facts of the Bible are true, and archeology and evolutionary biology haven’t  arisen to prove them false.

The story of creation, mysterious as it may seem, is a pretty good story: It will do.  As to the deeper truths of the faith, if you are Catholic, your church assures you that the trinity is a mystery, so you don’t need to bother with looking for the word in the Bible, where it doesn’t occur.  If you are a churchgoing enthusiast who can’t wait for Sunday mornings to wear your new frock or your new vest, it doesn’t bother you that there’s no reference to a nine o’clock sermon in the New Testament.  If you are a Baptist and you like singing and praying loud, your church discipline and tradition tells you to ignore that part where Jesus told his followers to pray in silence and not like the Pharisees who parade their piety and pile phrase upon phrase.  After all, the parson has said, we don’t see many pharisees on the streets of Bristol or Newport.

But what really convinces you that what you do as a Christian of any denomination is the right thing to do is what theologians in the eighteenth century, the great period after the Newtonian revolution of the seventeenth, called “Christian Evidences.”

The phrase was introduced to make the supernatural elements of the Bible (and for Christians, the New Testament in particular) more up to date, more in keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Reasonable men and women who thought the medieval approach to religion was fiddle faddle—something only the Catholics still believed, especially the Irish and Spanish—had begun to equate reason with the progress of Protestant Christianity. Newton had given this position a heads up when he suggested that his entire project in physics was to prove that the laws of nature were entirely conformable to belief in a clockwork God, the “divine mechanic.”

Taking their cue, or miscue, from Newton’s belief in an all-powerful being who both established the laws of nature and, as “Nature’s God,” could violate them at will, it seemed as though miracles had been given a new lease of life.  No one much bothered to read the damning indictment by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, twelve years Newton’s junior, who had argued that belief in a God whose perfection was based on the laws of nature could not be proved by exceptions to his own rules.  —You can play basketball on a tennis court, but it doesn’t explain the rules of tennis very well.

Anyway, you’re comfortable with Newton, and the idea of Christian “evidences,” and all those lovely stories about impudent wives being turned into pillars of salt, the ark holding Noah and his family teetering atop mount Ararat (wherever it was), those vile Egyptians being swept up in the waters of the Red Sea, and the miraculous acts of kindness and healing, and bread and fishes recounted in the New Testament.

As a Christian, you have seen all these tales as a kind of prelude to the really big story, the one about a Jewish peasant (except you don’t really think of him that way)  getting himself crucified for no reason at all, and surprising everyone by rising from the dead.   True, your medieval Catholic ancestors with their short, brutish and plague-besotted lives needed the assurance of a literal heaven more than you do in the eighteenth century.  But in general, you like the idea of resurrection, or at least of eternal life, and you agree with Luther—

The sacred Book foretold it all: How death by death should come to fall.”   

In other words, you believe in the Bible because it’s one of the only books you have ever read—and almost certainly not even it, cover to cover.  And in a vague, unquestioning, socially proper kind of way, you believe the book carries, (to use the language of Hume’s contemporary Dr Tillotson)  the attestation of divine authorship, and in the circularity that defines this discussion prior to Hume, “divine attestation” is based on the miracles.

Divinity schools in England and America, which ridiculed such popish superstitions as the real presence and even such heretofore protected doctrines as the Trinity (Harvard would finally fall to the Unitarians in the 1820s, while the British universities came through unscathed thanks to laws against nonconformists), required students for the ministry to take a course called Christian Evidences.

The fortress of belief in an age of explanation became, ironically, the unexplained and the unusual.

By 1885, Amherst, Smith, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Dartmouth and Princeton colleges mandated the study of the evidences for Christian belief, on the assumption that the study of the Bible was an important ingredient of a well-rounded moral education.

Sophia Smith, the foundress of Smith College, stated in the third article of her will that “[because] all education should be for the glory of God and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said college, and that all the discipline shall be pervaded by the spirit of evangelical Christian religion.”

But all was not well, even in 1885.   Hume’s “On Miracles” was being read, and was seeping into the consciousness, not only of philosophers and theologians, but of parish ministers and young ministers in training and indolent intellectuals in the Back Bay and Bloomsbury.  Things were about to change.

Within his treatise, Hume, like a good Scotsman, appealed to common sense:  You have never seen a brick suspended in the air.   Wood will burn and fire will be extinguished by water.  Food does not multiply by itself with a snap of my fingers.  Water does not turn into wine. And in a deceptive opening sentence, he says, “…and what is more probable than that all men shall die.”

In fact, “nothing I call a miracle has ever happened in the ordinary course of events.”   It’s not a miracle if a man who seems to be in good health drops dead.  It is a miracle if a dead man comes back to life—because this has never been witnessed by any of us.  We only have reports, and even these can be challenged by the ordinary laws of evidence:  How old are these reports?  What is the reliability of the reporter?  Under what circumstances were they written?  Within what social, cultural and intellectual conditions did these reports originate?

Hume’s conclusion is so simple and so elegant that I sometimes wish it, and not the Ten Commandments, were what Americans in Pascagoula, Mississippi, were asking to be posted on classroom walls:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…

—So what is more likely, that a report about a brick being suspended in air is true, or that a report about a brick being suspended in air is based on a misapprehension?  That a report about a man rising from the dead is true, or that a report about a man rising from the dead is more easily explained as a case of mistaken identity or fantasy—or outright fiction.

The so-called “natural supernaturalism” of the Unitarians and eventually other Protestant groups took its gradual toll in the colleges I have mentioned.  At SmithCollege, beginning in the 1920s, Henry Elmer Barnes taught his students:

We must construct the framework of religion on a tenable superstructure. To do so is to surrender these essential characteristics of the older religion: (1) the reality and deity of the biblical God; (2) the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus and His special relevance for contemporary religion;  and (3) the belief in immortality.

Sophia Smith’s college had taken a new turn.  At Williams, James Bissett Pratt began his course in philosophy by telling his students, “Gentlemen, learn to get by without the Bible.”

At Yale, the Dwight Professor of theology in 1933 repudiated all the miracles of the Bible and announced to his students that

“The Jesus Christ of the Christian tradition must die, so that he can live.”

I need to remind the casual reader: I am speaking of nineteenth century America, not Tübingen and certainly not Oxford.  The American theological establishment had been so radicalized by the transcendental revolution after Emerson’s 1835 Divinity School Address that miracles had been pronounced, in most of New England, and using Emerson’s own word, “a monster.”


This little reflection on Hume and how his commentary on miracles changed forever the way people looked at the Gospels is really designed to indicate that in educated twentieth century America, between roughly 1905 and 1933, the battle for the miraculous, Christian evidences, and the supernatural was all but lost—or rather, it had been won by enlightened, commonsensical teachers in our best universities and colleges.

Of course it was not won in the churches and backwoods meeting houses of what we sometimes call the American heartland, let alone in preacher-colleges of (what would become) the Bible belt or the faux-gothic seminaries of the Catholic Church.  If anyone wants to know how superstition survived in this inauspicious climate, the answer would have to be sought in relative population statistics in the Back Bay and Arkansas.

Hume’s logic and the theological consequences of his logic barely penetrated the evangelical mindset.   And if I were to comment, I would say that we are now involved in wars throughout the world because some people, in America, the Middle East and elsewhere,  still believe they will rise from the dead and go on to lead a life in paradise, qualitatively better than the life they had led in this world.  In other words, the failure not to believe in miracles has had consequences that are not merely theological or philosophical but political.  America, the country where miracles were first to fall,  is at war with its theological others over whose afterlife is true.

When the tide rolled out on miracles, what was left standing on the shore was the Jesus of what became, in the early twentieth century, the “social gospel.”

He wasn’t new—actually, he had a long pedigree going back to Kant and Schleiermacher in philosophy and theology.  He’d been worked through by poets like Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, who detested dogma and theological nitpicking and praised the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and ethical teaching—his words about loving, forgiving, caring for the poor, and desiring a new social covenant based on concern for the “least among us.”

There is no doubt in the world that these words sparked the imaginations of a thousand social prophets reformers, and even revolutionaries.

In Germany and America, and belatedly in England, something called the “higher criticism” was catching on.

Its basic premise was that the tradition about Jesus was formed slowly and in particular social conditions not equivalent to those in Victorian England or Bismarck’s Germany.

Questions had to be asked about why a certain tradition about Jesus arose, what need it might have fulfilled within a community of followers, and how it might have undergone change as those needs changed.

For example, the belief that he was the Jewish messiah, after an unexpected crucifixion, might have led to the belief that he was the son of God who had prophesied his own untimely death.  The fact that the community was impoverished, illiterate, and a persecuted religious minority might have led the community to invent sayings like “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are you who are persecuted,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

But if this is so, then the Gospels really weren’t the biography of Jesus at all.  They were the biography of what the community believed about him based on their own cramped perspective and needs in a very small corner of the world at a particular time in history. How could this story have universal importance or timeless significance?

The Victorian church was as immune to the German school of thought as Bishop Wilberforce was to Darwin’s theories—in some ways even more so.  Even knowledgeable followers of the German school of higher criticism tried to find ways around its conclusions.

Matthew Arnold, for example, thought the Gospels were based on the misunderstanding of Jesus by his own followers, which led them to misrepresent him. But then Arnold went on to say that this misunderstanding led the Gospel writers to preserve Jesus’ teaching, although in a distorted and conflated form, more or less accurately.  They added their words and ideas to his, but in their honest ignorance was honesty.

Arnold’s influence was minimal. The miraculous deeds were gone; now people were fighting over the words.

John Dominic Crossan

When the twentieth century hit, few people in the mainline Protestant churches and almost no one in the Catholic Church of 1905 were prepared for the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus—a long, not altogether engaging survey of the eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to piece together a coherent picture of the hero of the Gospels.

Schweitzer pronounced the quests a failure, because none of them dealt with the data within the appropriate historical framework.  No final conclusions were possible. We can know, because of what we know about ancient literature and ancient Roman Palestine, what Jesus might have been like—we can know the contours of an existence.  But not enough for a New York Times obituary.

Beyond tracing this line in shifting sands, we get lost in contradiction.   If Jesus taught anything, he must have taught something that people of his own time could have understood.  But that means that what he had to say will be irrelevant or perhaps incomprehensible to people in different social situations. His teaching, if we were to hear it, Schweitzer said, would sound mad to us.  He might have preached the end of the world.  If he did, he would not have spent his time developing a social agenda or an ethics textbook for his soon-to-be-raptured followers.  (Paul, whoever he was and whatever he was trying to do, certainly knows nothing about ethics—just some interim rules to be followed before the second coming of a divine man named Jesus).

Schweitzer flirts most with the possibility that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in an era of political and social gloom for the Jews.  But Schweitzer’s shocking verdict is that the Jesus of the church and the Jesus of popular piety—equally—never existed.  Whatever sketch you come up with will be a sketch based on the image you have already formed.

He was not alone. The Catholic priest Alfred Loisy (d. 1940), before his excommunication in 1908, wrote a book called The Gospel and the Church (1903), in which he lampooned the writings of the reigning German theologian Adolph von Harnack (d. 1930). Harnack had argued that the Gospel had permanent ethical value given to it by someone who possessed (what he called) God-consciousness: Jesus was the ethical teacher par excellence.

Loisy responded, drawing on his gallic charms, “Professor Harnack has looked deep into the well for the face of the historical Jesus, but what he has seen is his own liberal Protestant face.”

In America, Jesus was undergoing a similar transformation.  In New York  1917, a young graduate of the Colgate Divinity School named Walter Rauschenbusch was looking at the same miserable social conditions that were being described by everyone from Jane Addams to Theodore Dreiser in literature.  Rauschenbusch thought that the churches had aligned themselves with robber barons, supported unfair labor practices, winked at income disparity and ignored the poor.  So, for Rauschenbusch, the Gospel was all about a first century revolutionary movement opposed to privilege and injustice.  In his most famous book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he writes, “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer  who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”

Like Harnack before and dozens of social gospel writers later, the facts hardly mattered.  Whether Jesus actually said the things he is supposed to have said or they were said for him hardly mattered.  Whether he was understood or misrepresented hardly mattered.

Liberal religion had made Jesus a cipher for whatever social agenda it wanted to pursue, just as in the slavery debates of the nineteenth century, biblical authority was invoked to defend buying and selling human beings. Once the historical Jesus was abandoned, Jesus could be made to say whatever his managers wanted him to say.  Unfortunately, ignoring Schweitzer’s scholarly cautions, the progressives failed to demonstrate how the words of a first century Galilean prophet, apparently obsessed with the end of a corrupt social order, could be used to reform a morally bankrupt economic system.

For those of us who follow the Jesus quest wherever it goes, it’s impressive that the less we know about Jesus—the less we know for sure—the more the books that can be written.

In what must surely be the greatest historical irony of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, for example, members of the “Jesus Seminar,” founded in 1985 to pare the sayings of Jesus down to “just the real ones,” came to the conclusion that 82 percent of the sayings of Jesus were (in various shades) inauthentic, that Jesus had never claimed the title “Messiah,” that he did not share a final meal with his disciples, and that he did not invent the Lord’s Prayer.

But they come to these conclusions in more than a hundred books of varying quality and interest, each of which promises to deliver the real Jesus.

The “real Jesus,” unsurprisingly, can be almost anything his inventors want him to be: prophet, wise man, magician, sage, bandit, revolutionary, gay, French, Southern Baptist or Cajun.   As I wrote in a contribution to George Wells’s 1996 The Jesus Legend, the competing theories about who Jesus really was, based on a shrinking body of reliable information, makes the theory that he never existed a welcome relief.

In a Free Inquiry article from 1993, I offended the Seminar by saying that the Jesus of their labors was a “talking doll with a repertoire of 33 genuine sayings; pull his string and he blesses the poor.”

But all is not lost that seems lost. When we look at the history of this case, we can draw some conclusions.

We don’t know much about Jesus.  What we do know, however, and have known since the serious investigation of the biblical text based on sound critical principles became possible is that there are things we can exclude.

Jesus was not Aristotle.  Despite what a former American president thought, he wasn’t a philosopher. He did not write a book on ethics.  If he lived, he would have belonged to a familiar class of wandering, puritanical doomsday preachers, who threatened the wrath of God on unfaithful Jews—especially the Jerusalem priesthood. I think that is likely.

We don’t know what he thought about the messiah or himself.  The Gospels are cagey on the subject and can yield almost any answer you want.  He was neither a social conservative nor a liberal democrat.   The change he (or his inventors) advocated was regressive rather than progressive.  But it’s also possible that we don’t even know enough to say that much.

He doesn’t seem to have had much of a work ethic; he tells his followers to beg from door to door, go barefoot (or not), and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. He might have been a magician; the law (Ex. xxii. 17 [A. V. 18]) which punishes sorcery with death speaks of the witch and not of the wizard, and exorcism was prevalent in the time of Jesus, as were magical amulets, tricks, healings, love potions and charms—like phylacteries. But we can’t be sure. If he was a magician, he was certainly not interested in ethics.

After a point, the plural Jesuses available to us in the Gospels become self-negating, and even the conclusion that the Gospels are biographies of communities becomes unhelpful: they are the biographies of different perspectives often arising within the same community.  Like the empty tomb story, the story of Jesus becomes the story of the man who wasn’t there.

What we need to be mindful of, however, is the danger of using greatly reduced, demythologized and under-impressive sources as though no matter what we do, or what we discover, the source—the Gospel—retains its authority.  It is obviously true that somehow the less certain we can be about whether x is true, the more possibilities there are for x.  But when I took algebra, we seldom defined certainty as the increase in a variable’s domain.   The dishonesty of much New Testament scholarship is the exploitation of the variable.

We need to be mindful that history is a corrective science:  when we know more than we did last week, we have to correct last week’s story.  The old story loses its authority. Biblical scholars and theologians often show the immaturity of their historical skills by playing with history.  They have shown, throughout the twentieth century, a remarkable immunity to the results of historical criticism, as though relieving Jesus of the necessity of being a man of his time and culture—however that might have been—entitles him to be someone who is free to live in our time, rule on our problems, and lend godly authority to our ethical dilemmas.

No other historical figure or legendary hero can be abused in quite the same way.  We leave Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, Cleopatra in Hellenistic Egypt, and Churchill buried at the family plot in Bladon near Oxford.  The quest for the historical Jesus is less a search for an historical artifact than a quest for ways to defend his continued relevance against the tides of irrelevance that erode the ancient image.

The use of Jesus as an ethical teacher has to go the way of his divinity and miracles, in the long run.  And when I say this, I’m not speaking as an atheist.  I am simply saying what I think is historically true, or true in terms of the way history deals with its own.

It is an act of courage, an act of moral bravery, to let go of God, and his only begotten Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity whose legend locates him in Nazareth during the Roman occupation.  It’s (at least) an act of intellectual honesty to say that what we would like to believe to be the case about him might not have been the case at all.  To recognize that Jesus—whoever he was–did not have answers for our time, could not have foreseen our problems, much less resolve them, frees us from the more painful obligation to view the Bible as a moral constitution.

The most powerful image in the New Testament, for me, is the one that is probably today the one most Christians would be happy to see hidden away.

Its art-historical representations vary from merely pagan, to childish, to clearly outlandish.  I cannot think of one that does what I would like to see done with the event–the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.  It is simply too self-evidently mythological to appeal to liberal Christians, and not especially in favour among conservatives–though I have never understood why.

I see the Ascension as the ultimate symbol of the absence of God, the end of illusion.  The consciousness of the never-resurrected Christ, the ultimately mortal man, dawning on the crowd.  It is presented as glorification; but in reality it is perfectly human, perfectly natural: the way of all flesh: I am with you always, until the end of time.  It is the unknown author’s “Goodnight sweet prince.”  It is the metaphorical confirmation of what Schweitzer taught us: “He comes to us as one unknown.”

12 thoughts on “Letting Go of Jesus


  2. Joseph, good point about the inverse proportion existing between the certainty a scholar allows in regard to Jesus and the resemblance of his ‘scholarly’ portrayal to himself. You mention Loisy’s call-out of Harnack, but even Crossan’s own autobiography, for example, portrays a creative irish peasant who was quite the rebel.

    But don’t you think it odd that the one silver thread flowing through these free-hand modern self-portraits is that all of them (with the possible exception of Harnack’s) have a certain similarity to the view of Jesus which must have been held by Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas?

    No surprise to me that the external ‘winners’ of history’s religious episodes get to call the shots about who and what they defeated and for what reason and what really went down in getting the new man out of the way.

    Nor should it surprise that so much critical historical scholarship seems to be still playing into Caiaphas’ hand – our bedrock in this kind of writing is nothing more fancy than the obvious fact that Jesus was a Jew living under Caiaphas. If this constitutes profundity de jure and de rigour, it stands to reason that the broad outlline of every view of Jesus by a non-believer must portray a man who was perhaps very good and decent but who after all got carried away with himself and endangered the nation.

    Harnack was guilty of constructing a Jesus so sweet that he could never have been crucified. I’m thinking it would make a worthy study in this century to disover a portrait of Jesus which is strikingly different than what we might expect from a busy and wealthy high priest with blook in his eye, or any other human judge and accuser among his contemporaries.

    Your writing is almost impossible to criticize – did your old teachers ever tell you that? But two material corrections: (1) I think Hume’s treatise on Miracles was first published in 1747 not 1757 (my authority is Richard Wollheim,1963). It was included in his Philosophical Essays on Human Understanding (first version of the Enquiry). (2) You write ‘John Bissett Pratt’ but I’m sure you are referring to James Bissett Pratt.

      • You’re welcome. And I’ll take this opportunity to correct myself as well … I meant the historian’s Jewish Jesus to be a profundity of a class that’s not ‘de jure’ but (I hope) ‘de jour.’ And I woke up this morning realizing I had gaffed ‘de rigueur.’

        And what I imply the high priest to have in his eye (though not on his hands) is not blook but ‘blood.’

        Sorry I have to be so tedious.

      • You’re going to hate this.

        Wollheim writes that Hume gave the go ahead for publishing the Miracles essay among the other ‘Philosophical Essays’ in 1747, but a look down the paragraph shows that the book was not published until April, 1748. So sorry (I checked too hasty last night, but double-checked this morning).

  3. As always, very interesting. But two minor material corrections: 1. Alfred Loisy was a Catholic priest but was never a Jesuit 2. He wrote “The Gospel and the Church” before — not after — his excommunicaton. The book was published in 1903. He was excommunicated in 1908.

    • Thanks for the correction: it is true that Loisy was not a Jesuit, a mistake made unforgivable by the fact that the standard reprint of the Gospel and the Church is my own. Tyrell, the English Jesuit was probably meant; but Loisy slipped in, as he always does. Thanks also because I always accept material corrections with immense gratitude.

  4. As usual among Christians and post-Christians, you completely ignore Jewish scholarship on this subject. It has been said that the Higher Criticism is the Higher Antisemitism. It seems to me that it is getting harder and harder for non-Jews to see anything at all of themselves in Christ, and so they conclude that he is of no importance.

    • This is quite some presumption you make barrett. It is also completely inaccurate. This is an essay on a website with other essays. It is not a monograph. The author is not obliged to provide a bibliography giving details of all the scholarship read and taken into account. The author will not have ignored the fine scholarship of Amy-Jill Levine, Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes (once again a liberal Jew) among others. But with any biblical scholarship that is ‘good’, it is critical, not ‘Christian’ or ‘Jewish’ or even ‘secular’.

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