“And there is salvation in no one else. For there is no other name [than that of Yeshua/Jesus] given among men [humans in general intended] under heaven by which we must be saved.”Peter the Apostle of Jesus speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin ca 33-4 CE, according to The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 4, Verse 12.
The present series of articles on this blog is considering the whole panorama of the innate human orientation towards the absolute and the transcendent, and the sense of our need to both save and be saved in some great sense. December 23, 2019, the date of this post, two days before Christmas, is an appropriate occasion to contemplate the greatest of all salvation-saviour stories, that of Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth. This Jesus, called “Christ”, is the Christian candidate for saviour of the whole human race, and indeed of the whole creation itself, and December 25th is the date in the Christian calendar when his birth is celebrated.
Let us therefore have a look at Jesus’ candidacy. We will certainly not exhaust this subject today. Eventually, we will also pay appropriate attention to other major candidates, and indeed to the whole conception of needing salvation and in what sense it is needed, if indeed it is, in future.
Let us at the outset of this discussion dispose of the most absurd disparagement of Jesus and his “mission” to save the human race and the world. It is that Jesus/Yeshua was never actually a real historical person, but an invention, a concoction of various elements of legend and myth and fancies cobbled together two thousand years ago by a group of unscrupulous ancient Jewish hucksters from Galilee seeking to dupe their gullible countrymen and take financial and social advantage of them.
It is embarrassing to even give recognition to such absurdities by mentioning them, but the state of affairs in Western culture has become such that it has to be addressed. This idea is alive and very well in chat-rooms and forums on the Web. The author of these blogs has also personally run into enough people in the real world who believe or half-believe this outlandish statement that it must be addressed as an actual idea in a growing percentage of the general population. My children have all had discussions of this nature with numbers of their peers when they attended college and since. We meet them at work, at school, and socially. Unfortunately, it is all too often presented as true by educational authorities in High Schools, Colleges, and Universities who should and, at least in some cases, do know better. Why they think this is a justified manipulation of their students one may only hazard to guess. Perhaps the root of this sort of outrageous distortion is their own hostility to Christians and Christianity, plus their own ignorance, as in failure to make any attempt to educate themselves as to the historical facts.
Without creating a tiresome list, let it be said that the historical facts are ample to verify that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, really lived and died in the early first century CE in the Roman province of Palestine. Contrary to the egregious and facile declarations of too many even quite well-educated people (I’ve even encountered a Ph.D. or two who have said this kind of thing), there are sufficient sources outside the New Testament, the primary Christian documents about Jesus, to verify his life and death in historical time and place. And it must be pointed out that these “extra-Biblical” sources are, almost without exception, hostile to both Jesus and Christians. Such sources include both Roman and Jewish historians and writers, as well as references (quite hostile) in the Talmud. That Jesus called Christ was a real historical person is an incontestable historic fact, unless one simply wants to display one’s spleen and stupidity, or perhaps the extent of one’s ignorance.
In the light of this extraordinary attempt to erase the very existence of Jesus/Yeshua from history, one is left with the question, “Why?” Why such vehemence, such anger, such stubborn and, it appears at times, unassailable determination to block out that life, that comet in time and place, from any serious consideration as to his identity and the meaning of a life and career that appears to have been astoundingly brief as such things go, but even more astoundingly profound and shatteringly impactful? Surely there is something there deserving of the most careful examination? In the ordinary course of things, the execution of a troublesome radical in an obscure part of a great empire should have had ended at most as a footnote about an obscure local folk-hero in a backwater part of the greatest world-state in history. That it catalyzed the greatest religious revolution and social movement in history instead surely deserves some examination and explanation!
That we are now even compelled to have this kind of discussion in the West is almost as astonishing as the original story itself. All of this begs a whole host of questions and cries out for the deepest kind of inquiry. What does it say of us that we deliberately propagate this collective historical amnesia? After all, once upon a time not very long ago and not far away at all, on this very planet, in that part dubbed “the West”— not some other fantasized galaxy we know nothing at all about – this figure, whose birth used to be “the reason for the season” but whose name our public media and leaders now scarcely dare pronounce, was considered the greatest and best human being who ever lived.
Not so long ago, he was publicly acclaimed as such by the vast majority of the nations of the West, who used to willingly refer to themselves collectively as “Christendom”. In fact, we have reached the point in Canada where a certain Prime Minister now in office even called some of the followers of this man “the worst of all Canadians”, or words to that effect. And most of the major political parties of this same nation have made it quite clear that serious disciples of this man who hold certain unwelcome opinions about certain moral and social issues need not apply to be candidates or party officials.
But today’s blog is not the time and place to rehash such local minutiae. Our subject is the Jesus Story as a salvation-saviour tale. All we can do here today is discuss some preliminaries in order to “clear the ground” for the real discussion in the next few episodes.
As already mentioned, the major sources of this story are found in the “New Testament”, a collection of 27 “books” written by disciples of Jesus or disciples of the disciples of Jesus. The content of the New Testament is partly historical and biographical, as found in “The Four Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author.
Part of being able to even discuss this subject is the question of the historical reliability of these sources, which purport to be eye-witness, first-hand accounts, or based on eye-witness, first-hand accounts, of the life, and particularly the public life, of Jesus/Yeshua, and the ensuing first thirty years or so of the history of the “Church”. The “Church” is the community of disciples and believers which sprang from Jesus’ life and ministry. This community of followers began to spread across the Roman Empire and even outside of its boundaries.
As with the absurd statement that Jesus never really lived, we are obliged to refer to the extraordinary and even strenuous efforts of many modern scholars seeking to establish the validity, or, in many cases, the invalidity, of the earliest sources and records about Jesus and the early Church. Once more we must ask the question, “Why this marked animosity and hostility which is so exceptional towards this one particular person, life, community, and institution—moreso than any other except Judaism?” We do not see the like when we observe the efforts to study the validity of sources for other religions, and far less outright scepticism regarding other ancient documents, such as the writings of the great Greek philosophers or Roman histories.
Let us once more begin with the most absurd of these endeavours to “uncover the real Jesus of history”, who is assumed to have been lost in hagiography and mythologization. The so-called “Jesus Seminar” is our qualifier for this dubious distinction. This is a group of self-appointed textual critics of the Gospels, university professors of very liberal bent, who deem themselves the world’s foremost judges of which parts of the Gospel accounts of Jesus are “authentic”. They dissect each verse and story and vote on it, leaving a very thin husk of rather meager, insipid fare which eliminates all hints of the miraculous and “unnatural” and reduces Jesus to a shadowy social radical who upset the wrong people and got himself killed for his trouble.
What is left can in no way qualify as an inspiring saviour-figure . The result is perhaps an even greater mystery than the traditional Christian one of seeing a human being as the incarnation of God Himself. How could this version of the “authentic Jesus of history” have ever inspired the creation of the greatest social-spiritual institution in the history of the human race? How could that Jesus have ever instilled the willingness to die for him and his cause in many millions over the last two thousand years? How could such a saccharin Jesus of so little substance have fueled the faith of thousands who knew him when he lived or shortly thereafter, when the truth of who he was or had been could not very well be hidden?
The same questions can be put to some other recent, although somewhat less radical versions of the same sort of hyper-scepticism on steroids. All are quite dubious applications of “higher literary critical” approaches to the New Testament. Unfortunately, this sort of ethos in Biblical analysis and modern-postmodern interpretation seems to go mostly unchallenged in the Faculties of Religion of the vast majority of our higher institutions of learning.
We will continue to look at the claim of Jesus to be the “Saviour of the World” in our next instalment. In the meantime, may all who read this, and all your loved ones, be blessed and have a wonderful Christmas season and holiday.