What Does “the Real Jesus” Mean?

What Does “the Real Jesus” Mean? July 17, 2016

It depends on who you ask? And any answer should be compared with answers to the question, “what does ‘the historical Jesus’ mean?” These are prime questions among Jesus researchers in the academy–mostly historians and biblical scholars–who specialize in what is called “the quest for the historical Jesus.”

Most Christians are unaware of what goes on in the academy. The Quest for that Historical Jesus has been a premier investigation that is generally recognized among scholars to have begun during the late eighteenth century with the post-humous publication in 1774-1778 of a book by Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a German Lutheran pastor, entitled Fragments. German scholar and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer, in his famous book The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), brought Fragments much more to light by saying it was the beginning of a serious investigation of Jesus of Nazareth in which the unhistorical claims of the church about Jesus’ identity, such as his supposed divinity/deity, had been swept aside by an unbiased analysis of written sources. What was left for Reimarus, Schweitzer, and other scholars of their ilk came to be called “the historical Jesus.” In recent decades, Jesus researchers have questioned this terminology in describing their endeavor and searched for substitutes.

One expression proposed to identify Jesus, though little used by scholars, has been “the real Jesus.” The reason this subject has interested me is that soon after my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ, was published, in 2008, I wrote a brief tract entitled “The Real Jesus” which represents a summary of this book.

Probably no scholar has wrestled with the expression “the real Jesus,” and thereby sought to define it, more than has Roman Catholic theologian John P. Meier. He is a priest, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame, and general editor of the prestigious theological journal Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

John P. Meier is on the conservative side of Jesus researchers. So, he affirms Jesus’ virgin birth, divinity/deity, many of his NT miracles, and his resurrection from the dead. But Meier is also a historian, and as such he must also remain be more circumspect about these matters of faith and thus less biased about them as a historian. So, like many conservative Jesus researchers who call themselves “Christian,” Meier wears two hats: his religious hat and his historian hat.

Meier is known mostly for his mammoth study of Jesus in a book series entitled The Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Three volumes of this series are completed and published, and three more are planned.

But like Meier’s expression “marginal Jew” as he applies it to Jesus, I think his definition of “the real Jesus” suffers from ambiguity and perhaps a lack of common sense due to semantics. In Meier’s first volume in this series, he distinguishes between “the historical Jesus” and “the real Jesus.” But to get at these definitions, we need to have a basic understanding of their foundation.

“Historical Jesus” is an expression that Jesus researchers use for their discipline of using (presumably) scientific tools of modern historical research in an attempt to recover true information about Jesus. Thus, in appealing to the primary sources for investigation of the historical Jesus–which are the four NT gospels–at least historical-critical Jesus’ researchers begin their project by applying a set of criterion to these gospels in order to decide what material is historically authentic/reliable. This criterion includes multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, discontinuity, and coherence.

Thus, when Jesus’ gospel sayings and deeds do not exhibit some of these criterion characteristics, these scholars dismiss such texts as non-historical, often alleging they are fictional creations of the later church. So, their “historical Jesus” is based on those NT texts and others (e.g., non-canonical Gospel of Thomas) that they regard as historically reliable.

The resulting portrait is a bare-bones Jesus. Thus, many of these scholars would say Jesus was a prophet, a sage, and an exorcist, and perhaps he worked medical cures; but he certainly was not God and didn’t, or probably didn’t, claim to be the Son of Man, the Son of God, or the Messiah of Israel.

So, how does John P. Meier define “the real Jesus”? In Volume 1 of his series, The Roots of the Problem and Person (1991), Meier begins (p. 21), “The historical Jesus is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is not the historical Jesus.” He asks, “What do we mean when we say we want to investigate the ‘real’ Jesus”? Meier then defines any real human, thus the real Jesus, as “the total reality of that person, everything he or she ever thought, felt, experienced, did, and said.” I think this definition of the “real Jesus” is way too restrictive and that most people would reject it. Meier then offers a lesser gradation of “real” for public figures, saying written sources and others can provide “a ‘reasonably complete’ picture” of that person.

Nevertheless, Meier concludes (p. 22) concerning the NT gospels, “yet the vast majority of these deeds and words, the ‘reasonably complete’ record of the ‘real’ Jesus, is irrevocably lost to us today. . . . The reader who wants to know the real Jesus should close this book right now, because the historical Jesus is neither the real Jesus nor the easy way to him. The real Jesus is not available and never will be. This is true not because Jesus did not exist–he certainly did–but rather because the sources that have survived do not and never intended to record all or even most of the words and deeds of his public ministry–to say nothing of the rest of his life.” “Rest of his life”! That would include his life in heaven. How are humans going to know about that except that he sits with God on his throne.

WOW! I think most people would deem these Meier statements as semantical hairsplitting that overturns language as commonly used. Meier means no one, not even myself, can know “the real Kermit Zarley” because all of my words and deeds are not recorded and therefore not accessible for historical investigation. I think that’s ridiculous because it’s so impractical. When I think of my friend John and knowing who the “real John” is, I don’t need to know everything the guy has ever did or said throughout his entire life to know who the real John is, that is, to know who John really is.

When I titled my tract “The Real Jesus,” I meant the Jesus who can be clearly identified in the NT gospels as opposed to misunderstandings of these gospels which have resulted in historically incorrect identifications of Jesus. But in using the word “historically,” I am not using it as historical-critical Jesus researchers do. Rather, I am using it as nearly all people do–that to say something, or an act, or saying is or was historical is to say it actually happened. Some would call this “the real Jesus” or “the actual Jesus,” which I accept.

Actually, the whole Quest for the Historical Jesus enterprise began as Paul Rhodes Eddy and James K. Beilby explain (The Historical Jesus: Five Views, 33), “contemporary Christianity must not devolve into a new form of docetism.” The NT contains several statements opposing incipient docetism–the belief that Jesus of Nazareth existed, but he was God and only seemed (Gr. dokeo) to possess a physical body. So, he actually was only a phantom or spirit, so that his alleged sufferings were only apparent, thus not real.

To say we cannot recover a reasonably accurate and complete portrait of the “real Jesus” as he existed during his public ministry, especially when compared to that of most any other famous man known publicly, sounds too much like Rudolf Bultmann’s statement (Jesus and the Word, 9), “We can, strictly speaking, know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus since the early Christian sources show no interest in either.”


To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book,  with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.

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