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I finally figured out why I’m so obsessed with Jesus.
It makes sense that Jesus mattered to me when I was young. I was raised in a Christian household, we went to church, we revered the Bible, and Jesus was God.
It makes sense that Jesus mattered to me as a late teenager, when I had a born-again experience and became a conservative evangelical. (What I converted from in order to “become a Christian” continues to puzzle me.) At that point Jesus became not only my Lord and Savior, but also my best friend and closest ally.
Why would I be so obsessed with Jesus even after I left the faith?
It makes sense that Jesus continued to matter to me as a liberal academic, when I moved away from the evangelical camp to adopt what struck me at the time as a more reasoned, intellectually defensible, and emotionally satisfying form of the faith. I continued to believe in the essence — as I interpreted it — of the Christian tradition, but without the literal interpretations of Scripture and creeds that I felt had encumbered me before.
Jesus continued to be the focus of my attention, even as I realized that there is as much myth as history in the Gospel story, as I began to think that the only sensible way to remain within the faith was by demythologizing that myth, and as I increasingly saw Jesus as a metaphor for how I wanted to live and be in a world that was opposed to so much that I believed in, especially giving oneself for the sake of others rather than simply pursuing vapid pleasure and grabbing for whatever was within reach. Jesus was my model of self-giving love, even if I couldn’t know his exact words and deeds, even if he was an apocalyptic prophet whose predictions of the end of his world — within his own generation! — did not come true, even if the literal understanding of his virgin birth, his physical resurrection, and his divine character were open to serious doubt.
But why would I be so obsessed with Jesus even after I left the faith? Why does he continue to dominate what I read, write, think, research, and teach?
For years — until about eight months ago — I thought the answer was simply that Jesus is the most important figure in the history of Western Civilization. So who wouldn’t be interested in him? And in who he really was?
Ever since my graduate school days in the 1980’s, I have thought that the historical Jesus is best understood (very) roughly as Albert Schweitzer had recognized: an apocalyptic preacher of doom who firmly believed that God’s utopian kingdom would arrive on earth within his disciples’ lifetime. I have spent a good portion of my last twenty years writing about this view, teaching it to undergraduates, and lecturing on it to public audiences. Part of my drive has been to “set the record straight.” Very few people outside the world of the academy seem aware that the majority of scholars think of Jesus as an apocalypticist. And that is important historical knowledge. So I have wanted to proclaim it from the mountain tops.
I continue to think that this is the right understanding of Jesus. But now I see that this, in itself, is not the major reason I continue to be obsessed with him. The real reason was probably in the back of my mind all along. But it did not come front and center until I began writing my new book How Jesus Became God. Now it seems blindingly obvious.
Had Jesus not been proclaimed God, nothing like the Christian faith would have emerged. And we would not have our form of civilization.
The reason is simply that the historical Jesus was not the God-man that Christians said he was. It is precisely the disparity between the historical Jesus and the God Jesus that is the really important point.
If Jesus had never been declared God, we wouldn’t have Christianity. And we wouldn’t have the history of Western Civilization as we know it.
If Jesus’ followers had simply seen Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher of the imminent end, after his death they either would have died out — since his core message proved to be wrong — or they would have continued to revere him as a teacher of the Torah whose interpretations, for them, were still worth following. But Jesus’ followers declared that he was God, and that started the Christian movement.
Without that declaration, Jesus’ Jewish followers would have remained a small sect within Judaism. Probably a very small sect indeed. Converts would not have flocked to their cause — especially Gentile converts, any more than they flocked to the cause of the Pharisees or of John the Baptist.
If Gentiles had not started converting, eventually at an impressive rate, Christianity would not have grown exponentially over the next three hundred years. If Christianity had not been a sizable minority in the empire by the early 4th century, Constantine almost certainly would not have converted. If Constantine had not converted, the massive conversions in his wake would never have occurred. The Empire would not have become predominantly Christian. Theodosius would not have declared Christianity the state religion. Christianity would not have become the most powerful religious, cultural, social, political, and economic force in our form of civilization. We would not have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it.
All of that history and culture hinges on the belief that Jesus is God.
The problem, of course, is that the historical Jesus didn’t say he was God. (Proving that he didn’t say so is a major part of my book.)
So now I understand my obsession better. One could argue that the historical Jesus himself is a footnote in history. The overwhelming majority of Christians do not, and never did, believe in the historical Jesus — despite what they may say or think. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher of the imminent destruction of his world. That’s not whom Christians believe in. They believe in the God Christ. Had Jesus not been proclaimed God, nothing like the Christian faith would have emerged. And we would not have our form of civilization.
And so I’m still obsessed with Jesus — not just the man, but even more, the man who became God.
Note: See Michael Bird’s “Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong” for a response to this essay and Ehrman’s book.
Image: Stained glass at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, New South Wales.