I always thought Jesus of Nazareth was the same as Jesus Christ. It was how I was brought up. That figure was the man I was taught over and over again never to question, to always take whole, never to tackle in a way that could tarnish his divine image.
But, as it seems, Jesus of Nazareth is entirely different from Jesus the Christ. One is the simple historical version of a man who existed the same way you and I did. The other is the embellished version that the Church has worked years to build. The man from Nazareth was someone who was born in Palestine and who was crucified. Whether his birth was of immaculate conception and whether he got resurrected after his death are matters of pure faith that fall under the domain of Jesus the Christ. If you believe in those two entities, then Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t really matter because your faith is unshakeable. But if you’re like me, full of doubts and constantly questioning, Jesus of Nazareth may hold a few surprises up his sleeve.
I recently read a book about the historical Jesus – the man that Jesus truly was. The book was titled: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, it’s the book that caused a ruckus across the United States because its author was Muslim. Yes, I read it more out of interest in what the fuss was about than about the entity on whom the book revolved. Yes, it was an interesting read. Yes, I was left with more questions than when I first set reading the book’s pages. Yes, I think the book is impeccably researched. No, I don’t think the author is biased. No, I don’t think the author’s religion impinges on his judgment – if anything, he’s also discrediting his religion by saying Jesus actually died on the Cross as opposed to what Islam preaches on the issue. No, I don’t think the book is perfect. No, I’m not silly enough to believe what he’s saying is scripture but I believe it’s important enough to strike a conversation about.
The entity of the historical Jesus doesn’t really challenge Christian faith whose foundations are built upon three main elements: the Holy Trinity, Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ resurrection. The concept of the historical Jesus is what happened to Jesus’ life between his birth and death. If you believe Jesus died and resurrected for your sins, then whatever happened when he was alive holds little importance.
For starters, the Gospels were not really written by the saints to whom they are associated. It seems that was common practice back then, as a form or respect, to write what a man would have written and associate it with them. They were never meant to be a historical documentation of Jesus’ life and yet we are taught that they are.
Jesus was not born in Betlehem. The census that the Gospels speak about apparently happened after Jesus’ supposed birth and the type of census wouldn’t have required Joseph and Mary to relocate all the way to Betlehem. Why was this altered? Because the Gospels were trying to give Jesus the characteristics of the Jewish Messiah who had to be born in David’s town.
Jesus apparently had brothers and sisters and this is has been historically proven. The Church has tried to cover the fact that the man to whom Jesus gave the mantle of the Church was his brother James because this poses a problem to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. To me, however, Jesus becomes much more interesting if he actually had siblings and if those siblings had tried to keep his message alive.
Jesus was a man of profound contradictions which we apparently don’t notice. At one point, Matthew 15:24, he says: “I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel.” At another point, Matthew 28:19, he calls to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Sometimes he calls for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God”; Matthew 5:9, and at other points he calls for violence: “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one”; Luke 22:36. These verses have been proven to have a higher accuracy chance than others because they happen to exist across the four Gospels that are believed to be the most accurate. It’s worth noting that if Jesus had his way, we may not have turned Christian at all: “Go nowhere near the gentiles and do not enter the city of the Samaritans,” Matthew 10:5-6.
Some infamous statements that Jesus made, such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were also removed out of the Jewish context in which they were said because early Christians wanted to make his character more universal and disassociated from Jewish zealous nationalism.
Jesus was also not an anomaly in the times that he lived. There were plenty of “self-proclaimed” Messiahs that came before him and many more after him. His preaching time, which lasted three years, started soon after he met John the Baptist. Historical proof seems to indicate that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist but Gospel-writers tweaked the story later on to make it sound like John the Baptist was the subordinate during Jesus’ baptism. His miracles, however, have apparently happened. There’s no scientific proof, obviously, that they were truly miracles, but there is proof and enough documentation about a man called Jesus who trotted around Galilee, healing people. However, even in this Jesus was not alone. His advantage? He didn’t charge any fees.
The story of Jesus’ death, the way he was dragged from one court to the next, seems to have been embellished as well. Pilates’ washing his hands from any guilt regarding Jesus’ crucification while pinning it all on the jews is but the attempt of early Christians to make their preaching more accessible and acceptable to the Romans who soon became their main focus. Pilates, it seemed, was a ruthless man who crucified any one he met. Jesus may have had an audience with him but it wouldn’t have been more than a reading of the charges and a quick sentencing. But Jesus has been crucified and crucification was reserved by the Roman authorities to people whom they viewed disrupted order.
Current Christian theology stems from the teachings of St. Paul which are apparently drastically different from what early Christians believed Christianity should be: a variant of Judaism that is based on Jewish laws with the acknowledgement that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited messiah. This “fight” between James the Just and Paul illustrates the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ: What Jesus was versus what it is believed he meant. It is the resiliency of Paul’s teachings that have done the most work at obscuring who Jesus of Nazareth was.
I was told that the historical Jesus was someone worth worshipping. After reading the book, I felt that wasn’t the case. I had no idea with what stroke of luck he managed to found the world’s biggest religion. I had no idea why he, out of everyone like him who came before and after, stood out. Two decades of rigorous research made Reza Aslan, the author of the book in question, a more devout follower of Jesus of Nazareth than he ever was of Jesus the Christ. Two days of reading his book have left me in the cold. What I thought was special about Jesus Christ turned out to be but a variation instilled in Jesus of Nazareth by the Church I was taught to follow. What I thought made the entity I worshipped special turned out to be but mere additions here and there to make his story fit ancient prophecies. As it stands, I really have no clue what’s special about Jesus of Nazareth.
I hope that changes soon.