Following The Historical Jesus, Following The Real Jesus

Although many have found the historical Jesus a figure they could not follow in the way they had once been able to follow the “Christ of faith,” it struck me recently that in some ways following the historical Jesus – i.e. making Jesus as understood and accessible through historical study a central component of one’s Christian faith – parallels what it must have been like to be a disciple of the “real Jesus” almost two millenia ago.  (Note: I’m using the phrase “the real Jesus” in a manner similar to John P. Meier, to mean the actual individual as opposed to the person historians can reconstruct based on available evidence).

First, it involves uncertainty. There are hopes, and possibilities, but also the reality of a historical figure that not everyone finds persuasive and not everyone follows. Whereas many Christians envisage Jesus as one who is either literally or metaphorically ‘irresistable,’ clearly it was possible for not only opponents but even adherents to find the realities of who Jesus was challenging and at times unsettling. He was a figure about whom it was genuinely possible to have doubts.

Second, it involves a greater focus on the teaching of Jesus. A resurrection that may or may not lay in the future and a resurrection that historians cannot access in the past place disciples on both sides of Easter in comparable situations, at least in certain respects.

Third, it seems that the first and second generation of followers – those closest to him – saw the need to reinterpret his life in light of new occurrences and circumstances. When we find ourselves needing to do the same, that can be understood as an act of fidelity to the Christianity of those who encountered the real Jesus, rather than a betrayal.

What similarities and differences do you see between the two situations – between those who encountered Jesus as a real human being long ago, and those who encounter him (and seek to follow him) at least in part by making use of historical tools of study?

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  • James

    Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom. A listener who heard his proclamation might have accepted it or rejected it with varying degrees of certitude, but at least the futurity of it prevented its palpable falsification. After Jesus’s death, the message of his followers was that he had risen, that he would return, and that his return would coincide with the coming of the kingdom.Anyone who reads his or his followers’ message today knows that the kingdom has not come, and has excellent reason to doubt the historicity of the resurrection. The establishment of God’s kingdom has not occurred. The closest thing to it is the establishment of a church whose history is stained by all-too-human failings. That Jesus’s followers believed in his resurrection is well substantiated, but even a diminutive application of historical and scientific methods will suggest that they were mistaken in their belief. Jesus’s followers before he died were mistaken if they accepted his proclamation of the kingdom. His followers after his death were and are mistaken if they accepted or accept that the resurrection occurred and must now know that the parousia has not occurred. Those who today read Mark, Matthew, Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans–the core of the kerygma–should not fail to see that in its central elements it’s untrue. They should be better informed and less credulous than were the first-century followers.

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    Why does anyone feel the need to follow anyone? Can't a human being develop and commit to their own values? Religious symbols of "ideals" are valuable for those who adhere to those values, but humanist values are not any different, are they?Symbols via religion are the myths that give people a 'model' in which to reference their life. But, I think it is dangerous to extrapolate an universalization of Jesus life. And it is also dangerous to historicize his life in a pragmatic way upon other human beings.

  • James F. McGrath

    Angie, those are indeed important questions and warnings. But I think it is also important to acknowledge that no individual has values in isolation, nor is any of us always a leader and never a follower. Isn't the best we can do to try to never be an uncritical follower, never surrender the responsibility for our choices, even when that choice involves a choice to follow in the footsteps of others who have gone before us?

  • Angie Van De Merwe

    I agree with you last analysis. And I also agree that we must live in contexts, but we also can choose many contexts in our society, can't we? This is the value of living in free societies, which do not pre-determine "who we should be" or "become".I think many come to "faith" because of a human need, or void, and find their identity within that social group. But, it is also true that we can outgrow the social group that we once committed to. Not that we become "more important", but that we "see things differently", so our values may change. This should happen as we grow or develop as human beings.So forming individuals according to one model or identifier is mis-guided. Didn't Jesus even forewarn about following men, saying that the Gentile had lords over them?

  • Solly Gratia

    I think Liberation theology (certainly of the Black and Latin American varieties) find sympathy between Jesus' days and ours. From that they are able to draw conclusions that are relevant in a contemporary sense, because they see jesus latching onto a strand of biblical teaching that majors on liberation, inclusion, life under oppression, the experiences of the little people.Ideas about the kingdom and Resurrection depend, of course, on what your starting point for analysis is. If you only see the former as 'merely' a Judaic political dream, the obviously it didn't come. If your idea of proof for the res is CNN embedded with the Temple guard, well…

  • Sabio Lantz

    It seems to me that those who knew the real Jesus were highly disillusioned after his death, so apparently they had the wrong idea about him. They were drawn to a teacher that did not fulfill his promises or their desires. The story then goes two ways after that, either they created an imaginary hero and altered his story or suddenly the understood the truth and started talking. Those using historical tools are doing the opposite, they are not trying to homogenize their understandings.