Why I Am Obsessed with Jesus

I gave up believing in Jesus long ago, but I can’t stop thinking — or writing — about him. Here’s why.

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.

RNS-EHRMAN-BOOK aJesus 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.

Bart Ehrman
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  • Liz Jose

    I was always obsessed with the person of Jesus and contiues to be the sams , I live breathing his name whole day long and I am certain there are so many in the world living with the power of his name and that is the proof of his divinity.The most unfortunate part of his followers is the powerful force it has become today ,cultural, social, economic and so on .I feel Jesus never wants that for me He continues to be the intimate friend of the fishermen , the poor and walk among them as he has walked 2000 years back and I am obsessed with that Jesus not the Jesus of marble castles men has built around the world especially in vatican.

  • Doug Wilkening

    I haven’t read Professor Ehrman’s book, but I’ve read many others of the genre. I’ve come to view secular bible scholars primarily as good entertainers for an intellectual audience, nothing more. The reason is that I’m also a bit of a history buff, and I know how professional historians use the available documentation trail to research past events.

    The documentation about Jesus, such as it is, consists solely of a collection of ancient manuscripts and fragments, dated at 70 AD to 200 AD give or take some argument either way, without much external verification of their content. The manuscripts are self-contained, and they say what they say. The methods used by so-called bible “scholars” to prove (speculate would be a better word) that Jesus did say the apocalyptic sayings attributed to him in that manuscript collection, but did not say “Before Abraham came to be, I AM,” or “I and the father are one,” also attributed to him in that same manuscript collection, would never pass muster among historians of the French Revolution, for example, or the Roman Empire, or the US Civil War.

    Real historians, although granted they may have a point of view or an ax to grind, at least follow the available documentation trail objectively to get at what may have happened.The secular bible “scholar”, by contrast, first invents a really good story a priori, then invents flimsy excuses to discard whatever portions of the manuscript collection disagree with the story while affirming those portions that agree. In other words, most secular bible “scholarship” is simple cherry-picking of evidence from the available manuscript collection to fabricate a tall tale. I’m always amazed that one can actually get tenure at a real university for such a thing. Oh wait, great fiction writers do get tenure, in Literature departments. Maybe it’s the same deal in departments of “Religious Studies.”

    • BM

      Now for the nitty-gritty of rigorous historic testing used by modern religious and secular bible scholars:

      Said testing is dependent on the number of scriptural attestations, the archeology, the ways and means of the time and location of the event and the
      stratum or time period/publication of the event. Specific examples are available on line. e.g. See the websites of Faith Future and also Early Christian Documents/Theories. And a good study using these methods? Professors Crossan and Reed’s book, Excavating Jesus.

      • Doug Wilkening

        Yes, there’s good scholarship out there, and I respect findings based on archaeology. But I mostly disrespect the so-called discipline of “textual analysis,” and let me show why with an example from the Jesus Seminar, which relies very heavily on textual criticism.

        The Jesus Seminar, and Professor Ehrman also, believe that Jesus never claimed to be God. This is established using the so-called principle of self-reference. You’ll find this principle summarized in the Wikipedia article on Jesus Seminar. It basically holds, a priori, that any manuscript passage that has Jesus referring to himself is therefore inauthentic and should be excluded from the record. Just because of the principle of self-reference.

        Now, real historians follow no such principle. Much of what we think we know about history comes from the diaries and memoirs of participants in great events, who of course refer to themselves frequently in those memoirs. It is as if a historian of the 1970’s were to claim that Richard Nixon never said the words, “I am not a crook,” for the simple reason that he is quoted as having said those words about himself, therefore the quote is inauthentic, because it’s a quote of him speaking about himself. Principle of self-reference. It’s one thing to say that Nixon was lying and he really was a crook, but quite another thing to claim that he never said, “I am not a crook” and that the documentation of that statement must be inauthentic because of the principle of self-reference.

        Now the Jesus Seminar and Professor Ehrman do not simply say that Jesus is not God. They say that Jesus never claimed to be God, which is a completely different thing. It’s based on their principle of self-reference, which states that a passage which quotes a person speaking about himself must therefore be an inauthentic passage. It’s a principle which logically guarantees, a priori, that Jesus never could have claimed to be anything.

        Of one thing I am absolutely certain. If an archaeologist tomorrow were to uncover a manuscript that quotes Jesus as saying, “Hey, guys, I’m not God, you know,” Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar would trip all over themselves in the rush to declare it both authentic and reliable. An exception would immediately be made to their vaunted principles.

        • BM

          Hmmm, let us see what some of the experts (NT, historical Jesus exegetes) have to say about the “Son of God/the Father
          references in the NT:

          Matt 7:21

          “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will
          enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in
          heaven.”

          Not said by the historical Jesus, but more embellishment my Matthew. See Faith Futures for added details to include Professor Crossan’s inventory and the Jesus Database Faith Futures 111. Again this blog does not allow publication of specific websites.

          Matt 9:6 Passage notes “Son of Man” not Son of God.
          Google faithfutures JDB127

          Matt 10:32-33, “”Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in
          heaven; /33/ but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven”

          Professor Ludemann [ in his book Jesus After 2000 Years p. 344] states ” this is
          a prophetic admonition from the post-Easter community. For it, Jesus and the
          Son of man were ‘identical in the future: Jesus will return in the near future
          as the Son of man with the clouds of heaven. In his earthly life he was not yet
          the Son of man, since he will come to judgment only with the clouds of heaven
          (Dan. 7.13f) at the end of days’ (Haenchen).”

          Matt 11:27 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one
          knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

          Google faithfutures Jesus Database 045 for added details.

          “Lüdemann [Jesus, 330f] invokes the classic
          description from K. Hase of this passage as a “thunderbolt from the
          Johannine heavens.” He notes the typically Johannine reference to mutual
          knowledge between Father and Son, and the absolute use of “Son” as a
          designation for Jesus. In dismissing the saying’s authenticity, Luedemann also
          notes the similarity to ideas in the post-Easter commissioning scene at Matt
          28:18, “All authority has been given to me …”

          Matt 1:20- 225 (another “pretty, wingie
          thingie requirement)

          20/ But just when he had resolved to do this, an
          angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of
          David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in
          her is from the Holy Spirit. /21/ She will bear a son, and you are to name him
          Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” /22/ All this took
          place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: /23/
          “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him
          Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” /24/ When Joseph awoke
          from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his
          wife, /25/ but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and
          he named him Jesus.”

          “Professor Bruce Chilton

          In Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000),
          Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth
          circumstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of
          the community. He argues for the natural paternity of Joseph and finds no need
          for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus’ life,
          Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a
          major role in Jesus’ self-identity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

          Mark 1: 11
          And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with
          you I am well pleased.”

          Google faithfutures Jesus Database 058

          “Professor Gerd Lüdemann

          Lüdemann [Jesus, 9] affirms the historicity of
          Jesus being baptized by John, but does not trace the theological
          interpretations back beyond the post-Easter community:

          … Jesus did not regard his baptism as
          appointment to be the son of God. The underlying concept derives from the
          community, which believed in Jesus as the son of God (cf. Gal. 2.16; 4.4) and
          located his appointment within his lifetime. In the earliest period, for
          example, the appointment of Jesus as son of God came only after his
          resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1.4).

          ” Professor John P. Meier of the University of Notre Dame

          The second volume of A Marginal Jew devotes
          considerable space to a study of John as “mentor” to Jesus. The
          historicity of the baptism is addressed on pages 100-105, before considering
          the meaning of Jesus’ baptism on pages 106-116. On the basis of the criterion
          of embarrassment, supported by a limited proposal for multiple attestation
          (relying on possible echoes of a Q version in John’s Gospel and in 1 John 5:6),
          Meier concludes:

          “We may thus take the baptism of Jesus by John as
          the firm historical starting point for any treatment of Jesus’ public ministry.
          (II,105)

          Having established the historicity of the baptism
          event, Meier is adamant that the narrative must be seen as a Christian midrash,
          drawing on various OT themes to assert the primacy of Jesus over John. In
          particular, Meier insists that the theophany must be excluded from all attempts
          to understand the event, since it is a later Christian invention rather than a
          surviving memory of some actual spiritual experience of Jesus.

          Meier’s discussion of the meaning of the baptism
          puts great weight on the fact that accepting baptism implied Jesus’ agreement
          with John’s apocalyptic message, and also engages at length with the question
          of Jesus’ sinlessness.”

          • Doug Wilkening

            Yes, I know what these authors say. But being a critical thinker myself I have this unfortunate habit of asking, “What are the evidence and the principles of logic upon which they base their conclusions?”

            They have the “criterion of self-reference” (prima facie foolishness as I discussed above), the “criterion of embarassment” (VERY controversial, see Wikipedia), supposed similarities to later events. (as in, “God Save the Queen is similar to America the Beautiful therefore God Save the Queen couldn’t have been written by an Englishman in the 17th century, the Brits must have copied it from the Yanks after 1910″. Foolishness.)

            As I said in my first post, these “bible scholars” aren’t thinkers, they’re entertainers.

          • BM

            The referenced scholars have doctorates in History and/or Religious Studies. Their work, based on rigorous historical testing (see previous comments), are published in many books. I have referenced a few. And the University of Notre Dame does not hire professors based on their entertainment abilities nor do other universities. And note one of the first to have questions about the historic Jesus was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Have you read any of these studies? No doubt you will find them to be very logical.

          • Ralph

            Doug,
            The focus of your remarks seems to be on contemporary (Jesus Seminar) scholars and one prism through which they view the biblical text. What of others who arrive at similar conclusions without the benefit of the same prism? What of Schweitzer? And, by the way, what critical remarks might be directed toward those “scholars” who cherry-picked from among the available manuscripts those that make up the New Testament and the order in which they appear?

  • BM

    Ehrman’s obsession does not go beyond his bank account as he revels in the royalties from his books which he basically lifted from the studies of Professors Crossan, Ludemann, Borg, Fredriksen, Meier et. al.