In my copy of one of Bishop John Shelby Spong's books I was re-reading, I came across what he recounts describing what some people think about Jesus' life. The most common misconception, I would guess, is that Jesus was either a Christian, or he became one in founding a new religion.
Nothing could be further from the truth; Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jewish man and never thought of himself as anything else. However, in order to divest ourselves from what the Church does not teach about Jesus, we need to focus on what little we really do know about him. My article today is an attempt to tell Jesus' life story in a bare-bones fashion, unadorned by legends and making some specific notes of what we do and do not know.
We do not know who Jesus' father was. The Church began to teach that his was a virgin birth some generations after he died. St. Paul never mentions such a thing; he merely says that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the Law."
Jesus was born to a woman named Miriam, who may have married a man named Joseph. We don't know enough to say for sure, but evidence suggests that someone taught Jesus the skills that he knew: carpentry, and perhaps some other skills such as stone-work.
The story about Jesus visiting the Temple in Jerusalem may or may not be true; it is reasonable to think that perhaps he went there for his Bar-Mitzvah. We know virtually nothing else about his youth, except some fanciful stories that are recounted in non-canonical gospels and legends. His life is an unknown quantity until John the Baptist came along.
We do know that Jesus was one of John's followers. We don't know if he had any importance in the movement, though. It was after John's death the Jesus went "into the wilderness" for a period of grieving and meditation, as I would imagine many of his bewildered and sorrowful fellow followers did.
But it was in that wilderness retreat that Jesus came to a conclusion that made his life completely different from the Jewish leaders and prophets before him. Unlike even John, who had attempted his classic confrontation with the Jewish hierarchy of Jerusalem and lost, Jesus decided that the rich and powerful had had their chance. His vision focused on the rest of the Jewish nation--those whom he saw as lost, unprepared for the Coming of the Kingdom. There were so many of them, trying their best, compared to a small coterie of spoiled power brokers who played games with Rome, that he returned to John's followers and began preaching a new message.
To repeat--Jesus was a Jewish man all his life and never thought of himself as anything else, never. At some point he may have married, but it is also entirely possible that, like St. Paul a few years later, he believed that the Coming of the Kingdom was imminent and that marriage would only complicate your life while you were preparing for the end of time.
Jesus recruited Apostles who followed him; tradition tells us that there were twelve, but we do not know that for sure. They accrued a huge following as Jesus traveled throughout Judea, preaching about God's love and illustrating it as he used his extraordinary, charismatic powers to bring about healing of many individuals.
But Jesus, as a product of his times, believed that many illnesses and problems of human beings were caused by devils and demons. We no longer believe that, but the fact that his presence and attention could call people back to health and sanity is a testament to his own personal ability to touch people's lives with God's love.
The problem is that we don't know how many of his healing stories were real and how many were legendary, so there is no need to lay down hard-and-fast rules as to what preachers can do today. Rules and regulations do not apply to Christianity, nor does the Old Testament with its portrait of God as a hate-filled, genocidal monster. Yet Jesus never told his followers that Jewish Law was wrong. His conception was rather that human beings do not understand God's love. His concept was that God's love understands our shortcomings, rather than longing for the day that we can be punished.
Jesus did not die a natural death; in his early thirties he was crucified after visiting Jerusalem and falling afoul of the Jewish-Roman power structure. He was seen as a threat to King Herod, but rather less of a threat to the Romans, who believed correctly that they could not be overcome by an army of Jewish rebels. As a matter of historical fact, a later Jewish rebellion was put down, to the extend that the very Temple was destroyed. In the light of that rebellion in 70 C. E., we have to interpret some of the later interpretations of Jesus' life and death as gestures to avoid too much Roman attention to the faith which was rising out of Judaism. Many references to "the Jews" in the New Testament and the Epistles of Paul refer to Jewish converts to Christianity, but are not always designated as such.
After Jesus died we don't know what happened to his body. There is a story about him being buried, which may be corroborated by the existence of the Shroud of Turin (or not), but it was clearly a Roman custom to throw the bodies of executed criminals into a pit and cover them over. Could Pontius Pilate, or his wife have recovered Jesus' body and made it possible for his family to bury it? It is possible but we don't know. That seems to me to be the only way that he could have been buried: someone bribed or ordered the Roman guard to get his body and offered it back to his family out of common decency. The bits of information about Pilate and his wife in the Gospels suggest that they might have been moved to do such a thing.
We don't know which of the Resurrection stories, if any, could be true. What do we mean by "resurrection?" Do we mean a corpse come back to life and wandering the roads of Judea? If so, how did that body pass through locked doors--or did it? If not, how did Thomas handle Jesus' wounds--or did he? What is the difference between a resurrected body, as St. Paul postulates, and a dead body come back to life?
It does no harm to develop opinions about these things. But since the Christian Church speculates that Jesus, alone among human beings, ascended out of this world in his physical body, it stands to reason that his experience is unique. We will not take our bodies with us when our earthly lives end; we will leave them and go on in some other way or form. This gives rise to the effort to figure out what happens to a human soul after death, and there isn't what I would call widespread agreement about that, to say the least.
But this is about all the information we actually have about Jesus. The Nativity stories, the Easter stories, the miracles, the healing, could all be legends. Or some of them could be true. We don't know, and it ill behooves us to dictate to others what they have-to-believe-or-else.
My only request is that everyone learn as much as they can about Jesus' life and death by reading and studying real Church scholars like Bishop Spong, and investigate real Christian theology through such leaders as C. S. Lewis and W. H. Vanstone. You don't have to be brilliant to arrive at some understanding and belief. And you don't have to believe everything you read, whether it is from a Christian or an atheist or anyone in between. Just keep your wits about you and realize when someone is speaking out of prejudice or ignorance, pass it by and go on looking for what makes sense.
A long-running discussion of these things is ongoing at my church, the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson. Every Sunday we discuss Scripture, what it says and means, and no one has arrived at ultimate truth. There is always respect for opinion. Your input is welcome.