Jesus Seems To Be Whatever People Want Him to Be

Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States and in much of the Western World. Whether or not you want to grow up with Jesus is immaterial, he’s such a part of the landscape that he’s almost impossible to ignore. In the United States Jesus seems to endorse Presidential candidates (Vote Romney for traditional family values!, No wait Jesus loves Obama because he’s more charitable!), and he’s a constant presence in movies, music, and television. All kinds of people have an opinion on the guy: Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and even us Pagans.

The recent discovery of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife pointed out to me how concerned some Pagans are with Jesus. Pagans flooded social media with articles on this particular Jesus papyrus with many people pointing to it as “proof” that Jesus was married. My approach to such questions is always cautious. This latest discovery (if not a forgery) doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, it simply proves that some of his followers believed he was. When I pointed that out to some people I was met with very negative reactions. I think I was called a “troll” on one Facebook group for suggesting something the moderators disagreed with.

I don’t think I came across as an ass while discussing the “Was Jesus Married?” issue, and I tried to make the point several times that I didn’t really care one way or the other. Yes, most reputable scholars doubt that Jesus was married, but I don’t think it’s something that can be proven one way or another. If you want to believe that Jesus was married it’s certainly your right to do so, and there are arguments you can make to support that claim (some of them also by reputable scholars, though a much smaller amount).

Jesus being married would certainly humanize him, and I can understand why so many people want to believe (or hope) that he was. Despite having reservations on the issue I would like for the guy to have been married, but what would it change? You could find an ancient scroll dating back to the time of Jesus allegedly written by Jesus himself talking about his wife Mary Magdalene, but I doubt such a discovery would suddenly allow Catholic Priests to marry (and better yet also be women!). Even if the damned thing was signed “Jesus” there would be no way to authenticate that it was written by the Jesus in question. There’s not really enough information out there to say with 100% certainty that the guy was or wasn’t married, and as someone who likes to understand both sides of the argument, I often remind people to take a breath before declaring something “proves” a thing.

Jesus evokes such passion because he’s essentially a blank canvas. The four canonical gospels were all written decades after his death (with the earliest one, Mark, dating to about the year 70 of the Common Era) and there aren’t a whole lot of references to him in Pagan antiquity either. As a result of the rather ambiguous nature of the historical Jesus he can be pretty much anything. I’ve read books suggesting that he was a lost Pharaoh of Egypt to someone who spoke with space aliens. Certain theories are more credible than others (to prove that Jesus spoke with space aliens you’d first have to prove the existence of space aliens), but with so little to go on he’s easy to turn into whatever you want him to be. This is as true of Evangelical Christians as it is of Pagans.

Earlier this year Llewellyn released the book Jesus Through Pagan Eyes which spoke to just how important ideas about Jesus are to the Pagan Community. Everyone has an opinion, and they all vary, but most people seem to want him on our team. I’ve often found that inserting Jesus into Paganism is much like inserting a square peg into a round hole, but that’s just me. (I’ll admit to an attempt to use Jesus in a Pagan context early on in my Pagan journey, but I could never get it to work.) I know people who seem very proud of their Paganism and their association with the carpenter from Nazareth, I may not get it, but it’s not for me to judge.

As an arm-chair historian I’m uncomfortable when people talk about Jesus as a shaman or a witch. Words have meanings and they have definitions. Jesus was not Siberian, and I kind of doubt he would have been exposed to shamanism in 1st Century Palestine, but that’s how a lot of Pagans like to perceive him. Considering the modern definition of the word it actually works pretty well (“a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events”), but it’s not a term he would have used for himself. However, Jesus as a shaman is at least a little more accurate than Jesus the venture capitalist. I’ll never figure out exactly when Jesus became a champion of the Free Market, but apparently it’s in there though it’s really not.

The “Jesus was a witch” argument is even harder to buy than “Jesus was a shaman.” No matter what you think of Jesus it’s important to remember that there are some things we know about him with almost absolute certainty. The most important of those things is that Jesus was a Jew, and therefore extremely unlikely to think of himself as a “witch.” You can see things in the message of Jesus that might be considered “witchy” (the miracles for instance, which are essentially magickal in nature), but he wasn’t one of us. Just because he engaged in some magickal practices doesn’t make him a witch, almost every religion has a long history of magickal practice, and most of those practitioners simply thought of themselves as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. I think we try too hard to draw connections where none exist.

Of course drawing those lines of connection is not unique to Paganism. Mormon Jesus seems to look a lot like me, with the blonde hair and the blue eyes. Then there are those who think Jesus’s most important message was the often taken out of context “I come not to bring peace but to bring a sword,” instead of “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (The context is right on the money in the second one.) There are as many different versions of Jesus as there are varieties of apple. Don’t like the sweet ones? Well here’s a more sour version for you. With Jesus it’s more like “don’t like the giving version? Well here’s a more selfish interpretation for you.”

Even the four canonial gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) are character sketches of four different guys. Mark’s Jesus is a man of action and very few words. To the writer of Matthew, Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the point of the gospel is to emphasize his Jewish bonafides. Luke’s Jesus is the Jesus of the Gentiles and the poor, leaving John with a more mystical and spiritual version of the guy. After that you’ve got Paul’s version of Jesus as the redeemer instead of the rebel rouser and advocate for social change you get out of Luke and Mark. When even the founding texts of the Jesus movement disagree on the guy it’s not surprising that he’s continually reinterpreted.

While I often find myself annoyed when Jesus is called a venture capitalist/witch/shaman and then depicted with blue eyes, there’s really no right or wrong with the guy. I tend to buy the picture painted by more conservative scholars who like to limit Jesus specifically to his region and time, but the other pictures are often more exciting. Holy Blood Holy Grail isn’t fun to read because it’s accurate or well researched, it’s fun to read because it turns Jesus into a front for a whole host of conspiracy theories. It’s brilliant for what it is, but it’s not good history. However, since Jesus has essentially turned into either a straw man for whatever political movement grabs you or a source of entertainment (why would people on the Right watch all of those shows about him if they weren’t entertaining?) it fits into our modern Jesus hysteria pretty well.

Though I’m beginning to have my doubts on the Gospel of Jesus Papyrus it’s at least an interpretation that I like. A happily married Jesus seems less likely to be a fan of Ayn Rand or the Koch Brothers, but I’m going to guess that he ends up being just another one of the many shadows of the peasant who walked the shores of the Galilee two thousand years ago, unless of course he wasn’t actually a peasant from the Galilee. Will I ever be OK with Jesus being everything people want him to be? Probably not, but I’ll admit to liking him a bit more when the version of him served up meshes a bit better with my world view.

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About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.