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09 January 2019

Historical Jesus. (Who ain’t all that historical.)

Probably should put “historical” in ironic quotation marks.

So here’s a little transcript of a discussion I once had with a skeptic. Slightly abridged.

HE. “Jesus never said that.”
ME. “Sure he did. In Mark 16.52 he clearly states….”
HE. “No, that’s what the bible says he said. I’m talking about what he actually said. Not what some Roman Christian, centuries later, claims he said.”

Where’d he get the idea the gospels aren’t historical?—that the Jesus we Christians believe in, is just ancient Christian fanfiction? This, true believers, is what we call the Historical Jesus hypothesis.

When he wasn’t staying in the White House, Thomas Jefferson used to spend his evenings at home in Virginia with four bibles (two copies each, so he could get the text from either side of the page), scissors and paste, splicing together a private book he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowadays we call it “the Jefferson Bible.” In Jefferson’s version of the story, Jesus does no miracles (except one or two, which Jefferson left in because he liked the lessons in those particular stories).


Displayed in Greek, Latin, French, and English—though Jefferson’s ancient-language skills were iffy, so sometimes they don’t line up perfectly. UVA Magazine

Y’see, Jefferson believed God doesn’t interfere with nature, and therefore Jesus never did miracles. He was only a teacher of morals. Miracles were added years later by supernaturalist Christians. So Jefferson literally cut out the miracles and kept the lessons. Well… the lessons he liked; not so much the hard-for-him-to-believe statements Jesus makes throughout John.

So yeah, the Historical Jesus idea isn’t new. It predates Jefferson. It stretches all the way back to the most ancient church; you see it in Marcion of Sinope. It’s based on the Jesus we know—the Jesus of the gospels and the apostles’ letters, the Jesus who still appears to people, the Jesus who’s coming back. But it’s a Jesus edited with scissors and paste, as people trim away everything they can’t or won’t believe.