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 The Optional Jesus 

June 28, 2007 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, May 28, 1998]
indentYou might think it would be hard to claim Jesus Christ for the sexual revolution. He did refuse to condemn a woman caught in adultery, but with the stern proviso that she go and “sin no more.” He said that if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart. He tightened up the Mosaic law that permitted divorce. All of which offers little encouragement for swingers.

Today's column is "The Optional Jesus" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.paragraph indentNevertheless, the gay militant writer Terrence McNally has written a play depicting Christ as a sodomite (though protests have forced its cancellation). In a similar spirit, Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, wants to reject as inauthentic any Gospel saying at odds with his own up-to-date creed, which espouses, among other things, “responsible, protected, recreational sex between consenting adults.”

paragraph indentAfter 2,000 years, the most unlikely people still want to claim Jesus for their side, even when they aren’t Christians — and often, it seems, when they hate Christianity. They usually say that the churches have twisted the simple original message of love, superimposing layers of dogma, theology, and repressive morality. Jesus was great, but ever since St. Paul it’s been downhill, what with St. Augustine, Cotton Mather, and all those popes.

paragraph indentFor the last two centuries a curious breed of demi-Christian has tried to disengage “the historical Jesus” from all that dogma and stuff. What did Jesus “really” say and do?

paragraph indentThe trouble is that nearly everything we know about Jesus stems from the four Gospels, all of which were written by believers in the Resurrection, the central dogma. In a sense, all classic Christian theology is the working out of the implications of the Resurrection, considered as the fact the first Christians insisted, even under torture, it was. St. Paul himself said bluntly that without the Resurrection, Christianity was pointless.

paragraph indentThat hasn’t stopped the hunt for the “historical” Jesus, the presumably real figure behind the Gospels. Since the only documents we have attest a life of miraculous deeds, supernatural orientation, and eschatological purpose, the belief that a stripped-down “natural” life of Jesus can be reconstructed is totally at odds with the records.

[Breaker quote for The Optional Jesus: Updating the Son of God]paragraph indentIn her new book, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press, $26), Charlotte Allen tells the story of the long campaign in which scholarship has blended with wishful thinking to find, or fashion, a series of “historical” Jesuses who have turned out to be strikingly ahistorical. In 1909, George Tyrrell, a modernist Catholic theologian, observed that the “historical” Jesus of the German scholars was actually “the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”

paragraph indent“In other words,” says Allen, “the liberal searchers had found a liberal Jesus. The same can be said of the Jesus-searchers of every era: the deists found a deist, the Romantics a Romantic, the existentialists an existentialist, and the liberationists a Jesus of class struggle. Supposedly equipped with the latest critical and historical tools, the ‘scientific’ quest for the historical Jesus has nearly always devolved into theology, ideology, and even autobiography.”

paragraph indentWe have found the historical Jesus, and he is us! He agrees with us, thinks like us, and votes like us. Best of all, he imposes no obligations on us. He would favor, as Funk does, “responsible, protected, recreational sex between consenting adults.” Since the historical Jesus is progressive almost by definition, anything in the Gospels that makes Jesus seem reactionary must have been interpolated by his reactionary followers. (The question then becomes why he attracted such a reactionary following, but never mind.)

paragraph indentAs Allen notes, the historical Jesus is based on several modern dogmas: it presupposes that Jesus wasn’t divine, didn’t do miracles, didn’t foresee the Crucifixion, and didn’t rise from the dead. He just left a lot of wise sayings. Maybe he wasn’t divine, but he’s awfully quotable. And you can edit out the quotations you don’t like: they’re all optional.

paragraph indentAnother way to put it is that the historical Jesus doesn’t deserve to be worshipped. He is not the light of the world, and never claimed to be. He can be safely ignored.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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