How Historical is Your Jesus?

Christians are divided by the degree of literal stock they put into reports of Jesus (Biblical or otherwise), and likewise, the degree of historical stock non-believers attribute to Jesus reports creates different camps among them.  My diagram below is an attempt to quickly visualize the issues. The extremes on the left (Fundies and Mythicists) are clear and easy to understand. But the non-believers and Christians on the right have to spell out their criteria for what counts and what doesn’t count as historically accurate — not an easy task but important if meaningful dialogue is to occur.

Both non-believers and non-literal Christians vary widely in the size of their actual Jesus. I guess I can see the emotional draw to each position. For me, dangerous Christians are those who: want to limit science, women, and gays;  are exclusivists; desire any degree of theocracy;  suppress sexuality;  suppress questioning and doubt; … well the list goes on.  And you can find those folks among both Fundies or non-Literalists Christians. But then we also find those kind of folks in other religions and even in secular circles. Jesus is just clothing and a nefarious sanctification trick for Christians who do it.

HT: This post was inspired by Ian’s post here.

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15 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “How Historical is Your Jesus?

  1. Syl

    Sabio, you’re confusing me a bit (although it’s too early and I’ve not had my coffe so that
    may be the problem).

    Not quite sure about your categories and labels. The diagram looks as though you’re saying fundamentalists believe in the actual Jesus – that is, their beliefs about Jesus are accurate. Now, they’d say that’s right – that what they believe is the actual Jesus and literally true. But to quote an old song, it ain’t necessarily so…

    So, is this illustrating the degree to which different groups believe that Jesus and the stories about him are literally true? If so, I’d suggest changing “actual” to “literal” to differentiate between really being factually accurate (actual) and believing it to be factually accurate (literal).

  2. I think I know exactly what you mean here, as I’ve had similar mental classifications developed. But I think Syl raises a good point for needing to increase the clarity of the diagrams just a touch. It my help to make it a little more explicit that the circle represents what the Bible says about Jesus, “mythical” means that it did not actually happen, and “actual” means that it literally happened like the Bible says it did.

  3. Nick

    Thanks Wise Fool, I get it now. The big circle are the historical writings about Jesus and the colors are relative percentages of the accuracy of those reports. And I assume that believing no believers refer to people like those at the Jesus seminar, those who deconstruct the text to find the historical Jesus. And no literalists would then reconstruct The historical Jesus based on the texts. I would put myself in the no literalist camp. Although as you say, even among nonliteralists

  4. Nick

    Thanks Wise Fool, I get it now. The big circle are the historical writings about Jesus and the colors are relative percentages of the accuracy of those reports. And I assume that believing no believers refer to people like those at the Jesus seminar, those who deconstruct the text to find the historical Jesus. And no literalists would then reconstruct The historical Jesus based on the texts. I would put myself in the no literalist camp. Although as you say, even among nonliteralists there is a range of opinions. I think he generally said something along the lines of what is reported, but I do believe in the ressurection. Then there are no literalists who think he was a great teacher and said everything that is reported but do not believe in the ressurection.

  5. I have thought about this before. So much of Western culture is tied up in the Christian story and in the person of Jesus, that many who aren’t any sort of mainline Christian but are ‘spiritual’ still want Jesus to be the focal point of their beliefs. The trouble they have is that they want to abandon those nasty aspects of Christianity and those features of Jesus that don’t fit their target faith, but when they start peeling away those layers of the onion, pretty soon there’s nothing left. I think that’s part of why so many turn to other faiths like Buddhism, Taoism, etc.

  6. @ Syl & TWF & Nick,
    Good suggestion, Syl. I may change it when I get back to my home computer. Or maybe I just need to write my definitions. Here is what I meant by the terms:

    Mythical Jesus = did not happen, but is an untrue Myth attributed to Jesus.

    Actual = attributed to Jesus AND actually happened

    So, everyone’s image of Jesus is different (percent of color of circle = weight):
    Fundies = 100% of Bible true: The Jesus they believe is 100% actual to them.
    Liberal Christian = They agree that part of the stories of Jesus are mytical but certain percent is Actual.

    So, should I use different terms? How would you guys define them?
    Maybe I should do slices of a pie?

    @ James,
    I agree. I think those non-Christians who are “spiritual” only use Jesus because it is all they are familiar with — not because anything special about Jesus.

  7. The circle for “believing non believers” is kinda small. What about those that believe a lot of the Jesus story did happen, like that he performed many exorcisms and faith healings, but don’t believe he raised others from the dead or controlled storms or actually resurrected?

  8. I understood the terms as you meant them, Sabio, but I can understand why someone would find them confusing. If it were up to me, I’d say “biblical” for ‘mythic’ and ‘historical’ for ‘actual’.

  9. Ian

    So the circle is the stories about Jesus we have, from scripture and tradition and theology. The amount of yellow is the amount of those stories that someone believes trace back to real historical events, the red portion is how much is mythologized.

    I’d say that ‘non-literal’ Christians have a broad range of views, and on average a much smaller historical Jesus. I find, for example, that many of the Christians in my life have indistinguishable views about the historical Jesus to mine (somewhat top right, I guess, which is also roughly where the academic consensus is on the historical Jesus). Similarly there are atheists who’ve posted on my blog defending bits of the story I think are pretty obviously mythologization, such as the empty tomb.

    I often fall into the habit of coloring Christians’ views with my revulsion to fundamentalism. To the extent that I accidentally see them as less reasonable than they actually are. I think, however, that is massively cultural, so your bottom right may well be an accurate reflection of the Christians you know who don’t take the bible literally.

  10. CRL

    Personally, I would edit such that the “actual Jesus” circles are not fully within the “mythical Jesus” circles. It seems like most liberal Christians and believing non-believers did not believe the Bible captured everything Jesus was, said, and did, +more, but that they left some things out and put other things in.

  11. @ andyman409,
    Good points, Andy. Hopefully my next post fixes that issue. Let me know.

    @ James,
    Mentioning the Bible is probably important too, James. Thanx. Check out my next post to see if you like the new improved version.

    @ Ian,
    Yes. Thanks for your observations — spot on as always.

    @ CRL,
    I think you are right — circles in circles is misleading. I chose pieces (percent) of a pie in my next post. Hope it is a little better.

  12. Ben

    Are you sure this is not the gestation cycle of a chicken?

  13. @ Ben,
    LOL! But that would make Jesus a big “Yoke”! (to be said with a Swedish accent — imagine a Swede saying “Joke”)

  14. the Siliconopolitan

    I see CRL brought up my observation as well.

    I’d even want to consider the extreme that there was indeed a miracle worker whose acclaim inspired the legends, but with no actual overlap between the recorded stories and the actions of such a person.

    As it is, though, I still think I must label myself as a believing non-believer. But I’m prepared to be convinced.

  15. the Siliconopolitan:
    I agree: we should always be “prepared to be convinced”.

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