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Joel L. Watts Headshot

What if Jesus Was Real?

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That's a difficult question for many to read. It could mean, possibly, this author believes Jesus was not real or at least has doubts as to the existence of a Jesus. And maybe that is why the question is put the way it is. After all, it is less of a hook to ask, "What if Jesus wasn't real?"

In the past few years, Internet scholarship has become a cottage industry -- the more so with the advent of print-on-demand self-publishing. Anyone who can afford it can now publish a book based on his or her "scholarship." We see this almost constantly with the advent of new "ideas" such as Jesus was the King of Egypt, or Jesus was an alien, or worse -- Jesus isn't real, just a story told like other divine imaginations, to help out one person or another in achieving something of an ethical collusion, or mythicism.

Like Young Earth Creationists, Mythicists purport to use science to convince the listening public (many of them who already need no convincing, just as those who listen to Alex Jones are already convinced of what he says) they can demonstrably prove Jesus did not exist. Both groups are known to abuse science (and in the mythicist's case, the science of history) to their own ends, with one embattled mythicist resorting to a highly technical field outside of his own in an attempt to cast doubt upon the historical person of Jesus. Indeed, this later mythicist, because he refuses the title of mythicist, has lost many fans among the one true sect of mythicists.

Bart Erhman's recent book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, a book roundly decried for it's lackluster treatment of the mythicist argument attempted to highlight the problems with the mythicist's argument. One cannot really blame the detractors, as the book is riddled with problems. In the end, I am left only to wonder why we engage the engageless. There are no answers, facts, or otherwise a mythicist will take as valid, just as the young-earther will continue to deny evolutionary science.

In the end we have to ask, 'what if Jesus was real.' The historical person of Jesus is almost unrecoverable, although several remarkable scholars are currently absorbed in groundbreaking research in a hope to do just that. What I believe is recoverable is not the stuff of legends or myth, but one of a real person embroiled in a dangerous tango of revolution. After the death of a certain Judas (6 CE), the land of Judea had lay in a bitter calm as Rome marched on. Starting near the time reported by the canonical Gospels, a certain Roman governor began to antagonize the Jews, first in Caesarea and then in Jerusalem. During this time, when nerves were exposed to the wintry mix of the whispers of 'Revolt!' any man heralded as a prophet, and especially one who spoke against the Temple's corruption and the extravagant inequality between the classes would meet an apprehensive Rome (we have historical examples of this).

If Jesus was real, and stripped away of later theology, we would understand him as a leveler, a prophet, and a teacher who preached against collusion with Rome and the impending destruction of the Temple followed by a new, unblemished Temple complete with the Son of David, the eschatological king made famous in Psalm of Solomon 17 and 18. No doubt, Jesus would have wanted the Torah upheld according to his interpretation. He may have even cared very little about Gentiles, much to the stark realization of Christians (again, we have historical examples). Further, if he believed himself to be a prophet, he could have modeled his life after the prophets, and we all know how prophets end, don't we? His death would have been fittingly displayed between other rebels (or brigands, Mark 15.27). This could easily lead to seeing Jesus as having a grave among the evildoers (Isaiah 53.9) and thus started the theological development. His band would have kept his teachings alive and expanded them. Nothing ever stays the same once it meets something.

Later, as time progressed, his band of followers may have developed some internal rules, stating simply Jesus was going to return one day to defeat Rome and save Israel as their highest theological goal but accompanied with ethical rules. This would develop naturally into the belief Jesus would return, defeat Rome, save Israel, and rule the world. Well, if he is going to rule the world, doesn't that mean he is going to save the world too? And if he saves the world, isn't he something more than a prophet? And doesn't the world also include Gentiles? Where's Hillel in all of this and what is Paul talking about anyway, Peter?

The historical trajectory of theological development ending with the Gospels but beginning with the Jesus of history is rather easy to trace and even more recoverable than the Historical Jesus. Perhaps this could tell us something about the real Jesus.

The real Jesus was a Jew, one nearly unrecoverable in the present -- but this doesn't mean he didn't exist. It just means we have to live constantly with the doubt we may never really find him. As a Christian, this doesn't bother me much because I have the guidance of Tradition. As a scholar, however, there are times I wish I could simply stop looking, but knowing I cannot, trudge along. Is the quest for the so-called Historical Jesus worth it? Indeed, we know the dangers of a Jesus molded to fit the time and place of the user. We saw it with the Aryan Jesus now with the American Political Jesus Football, thrown from Left to Right.

Jesus is a historical person, but we may not like what he looks like -- if we ever find him.