Ross Douthat in his Bad Religion shows that what many Americans not only believe but want to believe about the historical Jesus is nonsense.
Among the cases he presents are these.
Around Easter 2006 the National Geographic Society hyped the publication of the Gospel of Judas. This is a gnostic writing from the mid to late second century. This was presented as a spectacular discovery of a “lost gospel” that shed light on the gospel stories. Jesus gave Judas secret knowledge that he withheld from the other disciples.
The Gospel of Judas actually is a writing that has nothing to do with the historical Jesus (or Judas), but is a work hostile to the Gospels and written something like three-quarters of a century later. Moreover, several months after the Gospel of Judas had been in the headlines, scholars began to discover that in the rush to publication the translation had been botched. The work was much less exciting than presented. A few scholars took an interest in this. The public, however, retained the impression that some work that damaged historic Christianity had been discovered.
Then there was Dan Brown’s widely read novel, The Da Vinci Code. In Brown’s world the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church, has evilly covered up the truth about Jesus–that he had a wife and kids and was a worshipper, not of Israel’s God, but of the Divine Feminine. The Gnostic Gospels, which Brown erroneously implies were written before the canonical Gospels, preserve this truth. Then three centuries after Jesus’ life, the emperor Constantine made up the idea the Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. Brown’s novel is an anti-Catholic fantasy. But many readers took it as history, and Brown intended them to.
Finally, look at the case of Glenn Beck, the right-wing talk radio guy. Douthat quotes an interview where Beck presents an utterly confused conspiracy theory that sort of goes along with Dan Brown. According to Beck, the emperor Constantine formulated the Apostles Creed at the Council of Nicaea and put together the Bible to replace the Dead Sea Scrolls. But someone hid the Dead Sea Scrolls to preserve the scriptures that people had used up until then.
All of these cases go along with the idea that the church suppressed the real Jesus and authentic Christianity. This notion lives on the internet and in popular culture, but it is also supported by many academics who have written about the historical Jesus. Douthat refers to people like Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, Bart Ehrman, and Elaine Pagels. They try to get behind the Gospels. They use the Gospel of Thomas and other non canonical gospels and gospel fragments. Not that these people agree with each other about who Jesus was. They agree that whoever the real Jesus was the church has suppressed him.
Douthat has reason for thinking that all of this is woo. What are the earliest writings we have about Jesus? They are the letters of Paul, written just a few years after the life of Jesus even before the Gospels. Yet, for Paul, Jesus was not a philosopher, social activist, or feminist. He was Lord of heaven and earth. He was risen from the dead. He was divine. This wasn’t made up at the time of Constantine.
What the Jesus scholars do, according to Douthat, is present us with less than the whole Jesus. There is a long history of this in America. Thomas Jefferson did it. They pick one particular aspect of Jesus and pare away the rest. In contrast, orthodoxy treats the whole Jesus. It presents Jesus as a complex, paradoxical character.
“The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post–sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.
“A choose-your-own Jesus mentality, by contrast, encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial. And our religious culture is now dominated by figures who flatter this impulse, in all its myriad forms—conservative and liberal, conspiratorial and mystical, eco-friendly and consumerist, and everything in between.” (Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 178). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
For the spiritual life it is essential to have Jesus as someone outside of yourself to challenge you, rather than a Jesus who is only a projection of your own cultural bias.
This gives us some idea of the motivation behind the modifications of Jesus in both academia and popular culture. One phenomena that seems quite influential is reverse fundamentalism or reverse authoritarianism. Some people get exposed to oppressive religious environments as young people and then react against this as adults. A look at the biographies of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels shows that this was the case with both of them.
This may tell us why people often accept the idea that there is a different “real Jesus” behind the Jesus of classic Christianity. It seems liberating if you grew up with a Jesus who was going to send most people to hell, or an anti-science, anti-sex Jesus.
Douthat has a strong critique of a lot of the historical Jesus stuff. But I would have appreciated a little more affirmation of the historical-critical method when properly used. Conservatives may think he is justifying an uncritical acceptance of some theory of infallible authority.
Much of the historical Jesus work that gets hyped and becomes part of the popular culture is hogwash, as Douthat says. But there is also Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, Dale Allison, N. T. Wright and others who have done valuable work not as driven by a desire to accommodate Jesus to a relativistic culture.