Who was Jesus?

NORA UNDERWOOD December 21 1992

Who was Jesus?

NORA UNDERWOOD December 21 1992

He was born, according to the modern calendar, in the year 7 BC, in a religious community near the Qumran plateau, 25 km east of Jerusalem. His mother conceived him while she was engaged to be married, at a time when people in the community she lived in still considered her to be a virgin. As a result, some regarded her son as illegitimate. In later life, he married twice and fathered three children. Emerging as a religious leader, he was arrested for infringing the mies of Judaism. As punishment, he was sentenced to death, but survived a bungled execution.


His loyal followers helped him to escape and he spent the rest of his life in hiding, meeting with friends and helping his associates to write documents that would spread his ideas. He was 70 when he died, possibly in France. That biographical outline of Jesus is depicted by an Australian scholar, Barbara Thiering, in a controversial book titled Jesus & the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, published in Canada in June.

Thiering, a lecturer in theology at Sydney University, is one of a number of writers to portray Jesus as radically different from the traditional image of the celibate religious leader who died on the cross at Calvary. While Christian churches in the course of nearly 20 centuries have propagated the Gospel version of a gentle white-robed son of God, many dissenters have sought to portray Jesus in a different light. Inspired by a new interest in the historical Jesus, and by new knowledge of the biblical era close to Jesus’ own lifetime, scholars and lay writers increasingly are re-examining his life. And while biblical scholars reject most of the new speculation, it is emerging at a time when some of the more liberal Protestant denominations have shifted their focus away from a literal acceptance of the New Testament’s version of Jesus’ life.

Several new books reinterpreting the story of Jesus for lay readers were in stores last week as shoppers prepared to exchange gifts in the annual celebration of his birth. Widely diverse, they include serious attempts to reinterpret biblical history. As well, American writer Gore Vidal has written an irreverent novel, Live from Golgotha, in which a 20th-century television crew goes back in time to cover the crucifixion.

For her part, Thiering claims to have found a new way of interpreting ancient texts that reveals hidden truths about Jesus’ life. In Jesus,

British author and journalist A. N.

Wilson examines the life of Christ and concludes that he may have been more of a political agitator than a religious leader. And in the Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, published last year, authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh suggest that St. Paul may have quarrelled with the early Christians and gone on to spread his own version of Jesus’ message.

Interest in the historical Jesus is cyclical, say theologians, but currently it is clearly a popular subject for theory and debate. Says Robert Bâter, a professor of the New Testament and religious studies at Queen’s University in Kingston,

Ont.: “It’s a sign of a longing for something more spiritual than our rather flat material world.”

Sources: One of the most important sources of knowledge about the background of Christianity is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered in

caves at Qumran, near the Dead sea, during the late 1940s and 1950s, the scrolls have created fierce battles in the academic world as Bible scholars bitterly fought to wrest control of the documents from a committee of experts responsible for translating and publishing them (page 24). But the scrolls themselves—the latest of which is believed by many scholars to have been written about 70 years before Jesus’ birth—have provided new knowledge about religious trends among the Jews in the period shortly before his time. They also contain information about the mysterious sect sometimes known as the Essenes, whose practices resembled in some way those of the early Christians.

In Jesus, Wilson offers a lively and readable reinterpretation of the Gospels, based on his own reading and thinking rather than new research. According to Wilson, Jesus was a Jewish hasid, or holy man, who possessed healing powers, and a naggar, an Aramaic word meaning both craftsman and learned man. In that interpretation, says Wilson, Jesus was not a carpenter, but a scholar who became a religious teacher. But he was not, says Wilson, the son of God.

Wilson concludes that Jesus was probably something of a revolutionary. He notes that during Jesus’ lifetime, the Jews bitterly opposed Roman domination of their land, and Wilson says that the Gospels contain evidence suggesting that Jesus recruited his 12 disciples to help work towards a new kingdom of Israel, free of Roman domination.

Wilson says that it is significant that Jesus’ followers included Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Simon appears to have been a member of the Zealots, a band of violent Jewish patriots. And Wilson speculates, as some other writers have, that the name Iscariot may indicate membership in another violent sect, the terrorist sicarii, who were dedicated to overthrowing Roman rule. Writes Wilson: “The presence of a Zealot and one of the sicarii would seem to suggest that Jesus was indeed involved in some fairly straightforward piece of Jewish patriotism.”

Jesus’ subversive activities attracted the attention of the religious and civil authorities, and Wilson speculates that they may have decided to prevent him from taking any action that could lead to a Jewish uprising at Passover. Wilson contends that the Gospels show the authorities acting quickly to try Jesus and sentence him to death, a possible indication “that they knew of some plot.” In Wilson’s account, Jesus was crucified, but the disappearance of his body from its tomb had nothing to do with resurrection. His followers, says Wilson, removed the body for burial in the master’s native Galilee.

While scholars concede that some of Wilson’s theories are plausible, if unproved, Vidal, in Live from Golgotha, uses the life of Jesus for no other apparent purpose than to create

outrageous fiction. Golgotha, which briefly became a bestseller after its publication in September, is replete with raunchy language and sex scenes involving some of the main characters, but not Jesus. The novel begins in the year AD 96, when Timothy, the bishop of Macedonia and a friend of St. Paul, sees an image of a man from the future who tells him that the Gospels have been erased by a virus that a computer hacker has implanted in the memory banks of every computer on heaven and earth.

Anchor: Soon, Timothy is contacted again from the future, by a television crew planning to go back in time to the crucifixion and resurrection. Timothy will be the anchor, with guests including Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ Scientist, and actress and New Age author Shirley MacLaine. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it was not Jesus who died on the cross, but Judas. Says Jesus: “There was poor, fat Judas, all set to betray me and then I turn him in and he’s the one who has to serve time up there on my cross—the look on his face!”

The computer hacker of the future turns out to be Jesus, who is erasing the Gospels because he wants to set the biblical record straight. In Vidal’s account, Jesus is a zealot and a revolutionary—“a Zionist first, last and always.” Vidal has Timothy explain that it was St. Paul who “deliberately


reworked Jesus’ hardline message and substituted for it a much nicer, more mature religion with, of course, the usual vague end-of-theworld predictions.”

Thiering’s Jesus & the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls reads like a religious thriller. She says that she employed the so-called pesher technique, used by the ancient Jews to explain dreams, to uncover the real story of Jesus. According to her theory, both the New Testament and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain two levels of meaning: one for uninitiated readers, and a real meaning that is accessible to those who have the key.

Thiering, who claims to have deciphered the code, paints an unorthodox picture of Jesus, drawing conclusions about his life and death.

Thiering places Jesus in the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and makes him a member of the Essene sect, which she contends was formed by supporters of the royal family of David, the Jewish king who lived about 1,000 years before Jesus. While the Essenes waited for the emergence of a new king, they lived in Qumran, where, Thiering says, Jesus was born. -

Thiering also constructs a theory to explain the legend of Jesus’ mother being a virgin at the time of his birth. She says that the Essenes practised strict celibacy, sexual relations being permitted only for the sake of having children. Under the sect’s rules, a woman had to be a virgin at the time of her marriage. Because Mary conceived Jesus before she was married, she was still considered a virgin. The fact that many people considered Jesus to be illegitimate, says Thiering, shaped his attitude towards the poor and outcasts of society.

Thiering postulates that a character referred to as the “wicked priest,” who appears in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the Habakkuk Commentary, is really Jesus. Thiering says that the Essenes saw Jesus in that light because of his illegitimacy and his unorthodox views about Judaism. She also says that Jesus, after earning the wrath of the Jewish and Roman authorities, managed to survive crucifixion. Death on the cross, says Thiering, was usually a long and agonizing process. But in Jesus’ case, Thiering says, a sympathizer gave him wine laced with poison. After drinking it, Jesus became unconscious and appeared to be dead. But in his tomb, friends used powerful purgatives to wash the poison from his body and the next day they helped Jesus from the tomb. After several years of travelling in the Middle East, he moved with other sect members to Rome. Earlier, she says, Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and they had three children before she divorced him and he remarried.

Beliefe: While another of the new books, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, does not focus on the life of Jesus, it challenges traditional beliefs about the nature of the early Christian church. By speculating that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed after the death of Christ, the authors argue that St. Paul, the institution’s first missionary, may have been the man identified in several of the scrolls as the “liar.” In the book,

journalists Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh draw heavily on the work of Robert Eisenman, chairman of the religious studies department at California State University in Long Beach and a noted scrolls scholar. Baigent and Leigh depict Jesus and his followers as staunch upholders of Judaism. The early Jewish followers of Jesus were deeply offended when Paul in effect “shunts God aside and establishes, for the first time, worship of Jesus.”

As well, the authors seem to imply that scholars with ties to the Roman Catholic Church tried to delay publication of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls because they feared that their contents might undermine traditional Christian belief. Borrowing from Eisenman, the authors argue that a figure identified as the “teacher of righteousness” in one of the scrolls, the Habakkuk Commentary, was a priest named James, who may have been Jesus’ brother. They speculate that the liar in the same scroll is Paul, who quarrelled with James because Paul wanted to broaden the early Christian community to include non-Jews. If James had won out, the authors suggest, “there would have been no Christianity at all, only a species of Judaism.” But it was Paul who triumphed and spread his own version of Christ’s teachings. That led, the authors argue, to the birth of a new religion “which came to have less and less to do with its supposed founder.”

The latest books have not impressed most orthodox biblical scholars. Geza Vermes, a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar at England’s Oxford University, for one, dismisses Thiering’s book as “fundamentally unbelievable.” Ward Gasque, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern ^ College, a school with links to the American g Baptist Church in St. Davids, Penn., calls Wil2 son’s Jesus “a journalist’s account,” and adds £ that Wilson simply is “giving his personal testi| mony, trying to make sense of why he hasn’t 5 remained a Christian and can’t accept an ortho-

dox understanding of Jesus.”

Said Ian Henderson, a professor of religious studies at Montreal’s McGill University: “We’re in a phase where

it’s sort of permissible to say _

some quite outlandish things.”

Scholars say that numerous attempts have been made in the past to reconstruct the life of Jesus in a way that eliminates the supernatural. “They’ve all had holes shot in them by other scholars,” insists James Packer, a theology professor at the University of British Columbia’s Regent College in Vancouver. “The Gospels present a Jesus who was so different from anybody’s expectation of what a messiah would be that it is incredible that such a figure would have been invented out of whole cloth.”

While most scholars are impatient with attempts to reinterpret the life of Jesus, they are unable to offer significant new information about his life.

Along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are providing a new understanding of Judaism in the period before Jesus’ birth, there have been a few other important discoveries in the 20th century that have helped scholars to understand how the Gospels evolved, while providing no new insights into the historical Jesus.

One important find was made in 1945, when a farmer near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi dug up an ancient jar filled with papyrus documents. Among them was the so-called Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus that some scholars believe may have been written down about 80 years after his death.

Some of the expressions, including one that portrays women as inferior to men, do not appear in the biblical Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas, says Sterling Bjorndahl, assistant professor of religious studies at Augustana University College in Camrose, Alta., “showed us that there was a strand of early Christianity that was interested in the sayings of Jesus and did not concentrate as much on the death and resurrection.”

Sayings: Some scholars contend that the discovery was also important because it confirmed the existence in the


based evangelist. “When the historical message of Christianity is eroded, members look elsewhere for their spiritual needs.”

_ Now, according to Vancouver’s Packer, many churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, appear to be moving back to a more conservative position after a period of liberalization. Said Packer: “The assumptions that guided the liberal readings of the Bible have been exposed and challenged.”

Still, some biblical scholars say that Christians should continue to ask questions about the historical Jesus. Oxford’s Vermes, for one, says that the question he would ask an orthodox Christian is: “Do you really believe that your religion was founded by that Jew who lived in Galilee in the first century AD? If the answer is yes, then it is your absolute duty to try to find out about the historical reality of this person and his teaching.” But scholars also acknowledge that finding the answers to questions about Jesus is next to impossible. “Short of Jesus walking into

your office, what would authorize you to really say what actually happened?” asks McGill's Henderson. “What we can see of Jesus is the shadow he cast, his influence.”

Mystery: Despite the mystery that surrounds him, Jesus remains one of history’s most compelling and influential figures. Says Eastern College’s Gasque: “Jesus

himself demands some type of response. And if it’s not, Thou art the Christ,’ it’s that he’s a madman or a creative teacher with good ideas.” Some biblical scholars say that the recent international surge of interest in the historical Jesus may be connected to the heightened pressures and growing impersonalization of 20thcentury life. Said Henderson: “Jesus becomes a very good personification of the whole question mark that stands I over whether we are a culture anymore, or whether g we’ve become unrelated soá cieties connected only by *“ bank accounts and roads.” Even in a multicultural society such as Canada’s, Jesus

made up of the sayings of Jesus. Scholars -

had long maintained that such collections must exist, and that one of them was the so-called Q source that provided some of the nearly identical material found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

While scholars investigate the historical background of Christianity, many Christian churches have been shifting their positions on central issues. Some Christian churches, including the United Church of Canada, have moved towards a less literal interpretation of the Gospels, while putting a greater emphasis on social issues. According to some observers, from about the 1920s the Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Canada gradually shifted to a more liberal theology, in which the question of Jesus’ divinity was not a central issue. But some of those churches have also suffered a decline in membership during the past two decades. The United Church of Canada, for one, has slipped to 785,700 confirmed members from slightly over one million in 1971. “People go to church for spiritual reinforcement,” said John Wesley White, a TorontoNORA UNDERWOOD with ANDREW PHILLIPS in London

continues to be a compelling personality nearly two millennia after his death. John Meagher, a professor of New Testament studies at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, a Roman Catholic institution, says that the fascination with Jesus is similar to the desire of an adopted child to find his real parents. He added: “It’s something that’s so deeply interwoven in your sense of who you are that there’s a longing to get next to it. It’s going back to the place you were bom, the country your ancestors came from.” Though the historical Jesus remains, as A. N. Wilson puts it, only “a shadowy figure” dimly glimpsed across the centuries, millions of people remain aware of him, not, Wilson says, “as a mystical presence, but not as a figure of pure legend either.” Ultimately, his remoteness in time and the mystery that surrounds Jesus may be part of the reason for his enduring power.