04/02/2007 11:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Mystery of the Real Jesus (Part 2)

Jesus left more than one riddle behind after he died, not the least of which was his identity as a real person. How much can we know about the actual living person known as Jesus of Nazareth? In the first post we touched on looking at Jesus strictly from the accounts left in the four gospels. To devout believers there is no need to hunt further, but skeptics and scholars both disagree on the historical accuracy of those documents. There are other credible arguments for trying to prove or disprove who the real Jesus was. Here is the second.

Argument #2. The Jesus found in scripture is so confusing and contradictory that a real person cannot be retrieved.

Pros: This is a position that fits many different perspectives. In the early church there were sects that believed in contacting Christ directly, which in the most radical instance meant bypassing the portrayal found in the four gospels. These were known as Gnostic sects from the Greek word gnosis, or knowledge. Gnostic Christians generally rejected church doctrine and authority, and a few of the surviving Gnostic texts (such as The Gospel of Truth) make a point of ridiculing and condemning anyone who is so foolish and misguided as to believe what they read in the accepted account of Jesus.

At the opposite extreme, modern skeptics point out that early Christian texts invariably contain a portion of propaganda, or to use a less pejorative word, polemic. The gospel writers wanted to convey the urgency of conversion to the new faith. (In the very early days many Christians believed that the Second Coming was very near at hand--as Christ himself had promised--marking the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of divine judgment of souls.) The point of scripture is to paint a totally convincing picture of Jesus as the Messiah; therefore, liberties were taken to turn the actual Jesus into an icon of perfection. In the process, all resemblance to a flesh-and-blood person was lost. Only the idealized Jesus survived.

In between these extremes are shades of belief and doubt. One can accept the criticisms but still believe the gospels give us a living person whom we recognize and feel close to. At the same time, however, such believers concede that the biography of a real person isn't found in scripture, nor should we expect one. The passage of time has been too long. The writers of scripture didn't deceive us, they simply weren't out to write a biography. Rather, they honestly intended a saint's life, a hagiography, on the ultimate scale.

Cons: Any argument based on the lack of facts about Jesus can be countered by saying that faith trumps history. The four gospels are true as revealed by God. Devout Christians can also point to the many places where the gospels agree with each other. They can argue that Jesus's followers knew him intimately and laid down the facts--even though meagre--accurately. Even if they idealized their teacher because he was the Messiah, a uniquely perfect human being, the miracles attributed to him were fact. It was these very miracles that mark a Messiah, and as to the other events in his life, the vividness of Jesus's persecution, death, and resurrection are true. The best evidence for this is the new religion that sprang up like wildfire around Christ. Those who witnessed his life story spread the word about what they saw.

The argument against scripture had no validity in an age of faith, and only in the past century or so was it considered permissible to apply ordinary standards of history and biography to Christ. Once they are applied, however, it becomes difficult to see how the four gospels can be accepted as factual accounts. Nonbelievers are likely to shrug their shoulders and say that the four gospels are a mixture of fact, myth, faith, and fantasy that can never be unravelled. Christians themselves are left in a shadow region full of ambiguities. To some extent they must accept the four gospels because there is no Jesus without them, while on the other hand there is no guide for sorting out fact from fiction that suits everyone.