As we approach Easter, Christians across the world prepare to celebrate the day which marks the resurrection of Jesus, as documented by the Gospels. 2.3 billion people worship the first-century Galilean-Jewish man, venerated as God the Son, the Messiah prophesied by the Old Testament, and the second person of the Trinity as per the Chalcedonian definition. Many Christians still eagerly await the Parousia, the next coming of Christ on earth. For believers, Jesus is a very real presence in their life. His teachings and ministry, narrated in the New Testament, provide a source of incomparable inspiration and spiritual companionship.
Nevertheless, no one alive today has ever seen Jesus in the flesh. No one has ever personally experienced the events recorded in the Gospels. Being a Theology and Religious Studies undergraduate at Oxford and an agnostic myself, I have always been intrigued by how so many people can devote themselves to a man they have never physically met, basing their faith on two millennia of subsequent writings and traditions. It’s a phenomenon that fascinates me, especially having been born and raised in a Catholic family, and holding much respect for certain aspects of the religion. All this has led me to ask one question in particular – if a ‘modern Jesus’ were to be alive today, how would those calling themselves ‘Christian’ react to him?
To begin with, it must be said that posing such a question and attempting to answer it is walking on eggshells. It would first of all require a solution to the puzzle of who really was Jesus of Nazareth, and entering the territory of historical Jesus scholarship is somewhat akin to crossing an academic landmine, where one encounters a variety of scholars passionately defending views which differ drastically from each other.
Popular theories and scholarly trends can change with the frequency of high-street fashion fads. With regard to the Gospels, the tradition has shifted from viewing Matthew as the first evangelist, to Mark. The historical accuracy of the New Testament texts has been scrutinised with no satisfactory conclusion, as mainstream academic positions range from those which deem them reliable biographical accounts to others seeing them as highly mythologised portrayals with little of factual value. What has become obvious through centuries of study is that each evangelist, or evangelical school/community perhaps, was reflecting with their very own distinctive perspectives and purposes on a man who had lived several decades before.
Much like the debates on the Gospels’ veracity, there is little agreement on the historicity of their main protagonist. Within the last thirty years, you find views as discrepant as those of the Jesus Seminar, who through consensus-votes conclude that the Messiah of the Gospels was really a socially-radical ‘secular sage’ divinised by his disciples, and those of scholars in a post-Schweitzerian mould, such as E. P. Sanders or Bart D. Ehrman, who claim that he was a typical first-century Jewish eschatological preacher proclaiming the arrival of an immanent apocalypse. As if things weren’t complicated enough, there are those who would argue that trying to uncover the “real Jesus” is a useless task doomed to fail. Given the immense difficulty of distinguishing biography from theology within the New Testament, the ‘quests’ to find Jesus’ authentic identity have been met with scepticism.
Entering the territory of historical Jesus scholarship is somewhat akin to crossing an academic landmine, where one encounters a variety of scholars passionately defending views which differ drastically from each other.
The reality is there is very little we can confidently ascertain of the historical Jesus, but what we do know is widely-accepted. Jesus was a first-century Jewish preacher connected in some way to John the Baptist and crucified under Pontius Pilate somewhere between the late-20s to early-30s CE, and this is a near-universally acknowledged fact. The ‘Christ myth theory’, which would propose that Jesus was a figment of his followers’ imagination, has become so widely discredited within academic communities that it is barely deemed worthy of consideration.
While the existence of the ‘historical Jesus’ is a matter of little contention, the way he lived his life certainly is, and this makes the next part of my task even more difficult to reach. It is undeniable that transposing a first-century figure deeply entrenched within the context of Second Temple Jewish Palestine into a secular, postmodern world is a precarious task. Some scholars would lambast the entire process, attacking my attempt with vehemence. When we can’t even properly reconstruct the Jesus of antiquity, how would we ever be able to know his attitude to a society so utterly alien to his own? Would a modern Jesus react differently if he were living in Washington D.C. or the inner depths of the Amazon rainforest? The potential limitations are endless. Nonetheless, I do not believe it entirely futile to at least postulate how a contemporary Jesus would appear. By counterbalancing the Gospel accounts with historical speculation, the picture that inevitably emerges of Jesus is of a preacher who called for drastic change in his disciples, who believed that current-day power structures would be overthrown, and that a transformation of the world was necessary. Society in its present form was immoral and unjust, with the poor subjugated by a corrupt ruling class, and this all had to be put to an end. Whether he believed this change would come through political subversion or an impending doomsday, we don’t know. But we can confidently bet that whatever change he was talking about wasn’t going to be small.
From this perspective, it becomes much easier to visualise how a modern Jesus would think and act. While his historical context was in many respects immeasurably different to our own, in other ways it has remained remarkably similar. The Roman Empire may have fallen, but new empires have come and gone and still exist within our current world. The poor are still disproportionately disadvantaged compared to the rich, structural injustices remain imbued in society, and wars continue to ravage the planet. It is not difficult to see that a modern Jesus would find himself reacting to many of the same issues his first-century equivalent faced.
Leaving aside unnecessary speculations of whether a modern Jesus would be toting a particular political badge or marching for a certain cause, we are faced with an important consideration. The Jesus of the Gospels, and most likely the Jesus of history, closely associated societal injustices with the secular and religious authorities which either perpetrated or allowed them to happen. It is an undeniable fact that, from the moment of Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 313 CE, Christianity became a dominant structural force, one which has brought some good to the world, but also its fair share of bad. We cannot deny the Crusades, wars, slave trades, and other horrific abuses all performed under the name of the cross. Modern Christendom still lives with the shadow of its mixed legacy, and it is easy to imagine that a modern Jesus would not be sparing his attacks on parts of the clerical establishment.
He proved an uncomfortable figure for the authorities in the first-century CE, and I find little reason to doubt that this would also be the case in 2018.
This finally leads me on to the big question of how a ‘modern Jesus’ would be received by Christians today. It must be said that some parts of this statement can never be answered, as it is impossible to translate all the nuances of a person we can prove so little about into our modern world. But on the basis of the small things we do know, or those we can more-or-less successfully predict, I believe that contemporary Christendom, especially its more traditionalist variants, would find such a figure difficult to accept.
For instance, one element of Jesus’ particularity which is most easily verified, and similarly easy to carry into modern times, is his ethnicity, and it is not hard to see how this could cause trouble for some. Many white Christians, brought up with a sanitised image of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus, would likely find it difficult to accept an olive-skinned Middle Eastern saviour speaking in a thick, rural dialect of Aramaic. Indeed, biopics and biblical drama films have been largely unwilling to make this leap into historical accuracy, opting for actors of North European provenance to maintain this Eurocentric facade. If audiences are unable to accept what should be a non-controversial component of his identity, how would they react to the more forthright parts of his ministry?
Jesus was a radical figure, whose behaviour led him to be murdered by the Roman establishment at hand, and it is likely that some kind of tension existed between the historical Jesus and the Jewish authorities of the time, however much the Gospels’ account of such rivalry may be partially attributed to late-first century synagogical disputes. How Jesus came into conflict with local institutions is open to debate, but it is clear that he became a source of considerable upset for them. Upon studying the Gospels and reading the evidence surrounding the historical Jesus, I find it difficult to reconcile his identity with a religion so intricately grounded on hierarchical power structures. That is not to say that Jesus would be unequivocally rejected by all people who consider themselves Christians, some parts of his ministry would likely be received with great enthusiasm. But would a modern Jesus be accepted and endorsed by the religious establishment at large? I find it increasingly hard to believe. He proved an uncomfortable figure for the authorities in the first-century CE, and I find little reason to doubt that this would also be the case in 2018.