The Birth of a Mystery

Jesus of Nazareth remains the most famous unknown man in history

Published December 16, 1995 9:44AM (EST)

At Christmas time, that odd and oddly moving season (how strange that a first-century Jewish heretic's birthday would make our children glow), a question sometimes arises amidst the wearying routine of shops and office parties: Is it still possible to say anything meaningful about Jesus? Is it even possible to think anything about him?

Who was the most famous man in history? No one knows. The actual Jesus seems hopelessly lost, buried beneath the accumulated stuff of an entire civilization. The triumph of Christianity, a victory of proportions so intimate and vast one can scarcely grasp it, makes it almost impossible to return in imagination to its human source.

And yet there once was, in all probability, an overcast Monday, or a wind-blown Thursday, when an intense young man from Galilee and his worried, marveling, obstinate followers tramped through a field of corn on the outskirts of some long-vanished town in a farflung colony of the Roman Empire.

Who was that man? What did he think he was doing?

For the orthodox, such a question is irrelevant, if not impious. Jesus is the Son of God, come down to earth to redeem fallen humanity. The Gospels, for believers, are holy writ, not historical documents. For modernist theologians, the question is equally irrelevant: they acknowledge that virtually everything about Jesus' life is historically problematic, but are untroubled by that fact. Faith, not documentation, is what matters.

For one writer, however, the contradictions in the historical account of Jesus' life ultimately shattered his belief --- and cleared the way for him to assess that life dispassionately. Paradoxically, A.N. Wilson's clear-eyed "Jesus: A Life," published in 1992, makes Jesus a much more vivid and compelling figure -- at least for this nonbeliever -- than do the grandly mythical accounts of theologians.

Like Shakespeare, that other vast figure about whom we know remarkably little, Jesus is a gigantic blank page that few can resist trying to fill in -- even if the results more often resemble a Rorschach test than a biography. Because of the unreliability of the primary sources, the four canonical Gospels, such investigations can seem as fruitless as attempts to establish a "correct" interpretation of Joyce's "Ulysses." The Biblical scholar Morton Smith even compared the search for the actual Jesus to a search for a submicroscopic particle in physics.

Despite these difficulties, the last half-century has witnessed an explosion of Biblical research, beginning with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and such important works as the excluded Gospel of Thomas and culminating in the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars that meets annually in Northern California to determine the authenticity of Jesus' sayings in the Gospels. Like John Dominic Crossan's speculative, left-leaning "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography" and E.P. Sanders' meticulous "The Historical Figure of Jesus," to name just two of a vast field, Wilson's work clears away the folklore and distortions surrounding Jesus' life.

Thus, Wilson points out that the nativity scene is a fairy tale -- Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at all, much less in a stable; there was no flight into Egypt; Jesus may have been married; he probably wasn't a carpenter, and so on. Like Sanders and Crossan, Wilson points out that the Gospels' attempt to blame the Jews for Jesus' crucifixion, and let Pilate off the hook, is transparent propaganda designed to curry favor with imperial authority.

But Wilson's aims are larger than merely to demythologize. He tries to recreate the first-century world in which Jesus lived -- a world in which "miracles" were part of ordinary experience, a world in which Jesus' contemporaries believed that the Messiah would come down from the sky as a great warrior king and drive the Romans out of Palestine, a world in which great and mythic historical parallels were taken for granted. He places Jesus firmly in the Jewish tradition of Galilean hasidim -- holy men who traveled about, healing the sick, casting out demons and communing with God.

The Jesus that emerges from his tautly written, closely reasoned book is a figure who reveals himself in brief images of haunting authority. Wilson grapples with the possibility that Jesus never existed at all -- and dismisses it, citing what he calls "the tiny detail which seems too strange to have been invented."

"Almost in spite of the Christ of the theologians, Jesus has survived," Wilson writes, "a man doodling in the dust with his finger, while all around him self-righteous men are shouting for the death of a sinner; a man who could liken the love of God to a fussy Jewish mother searching a house high and low for a lost coin; a man with sudden outbursts of anger, and strange flashes of mysticism; an exorcist, and a spiritual healer, but also one who sits at meat with sinners, and is accused of being a wine-bibber and a glutton."

Above all, Wilson's Jesus is a difficult and dangerous figure -- self-contradictory, little concerned with what we would now call "Christian" morality. "The truth is that Jesus remains too disturbing a figure ever to be left to himself," Wilson writes. He is disturbing because he forces us, at all times, to look within ourselves, to "reject collective answers." Wilson concludes that if this "oblique," even "terrifying" man were to have foreseen what would become of his enigmatic teachings in the hands of the institutional church -- the hideous results of two millenia of Christian anti-Semitism, the endless persecutions -- he might have cried out, with Job, "Why died I not from the womb?"

Wilson is well equipped to undertake his task. A novelist, he is sensitive to the extraordinary poetry of the Gospels (his excursus on the sentence "And it was night" in the scene of Jesus' betrayal is marvelous) and unafraid to make imaginative, even audacious, conjectures. A biographer (of C.S. Lewis and Tolstoy), he grounds his speculations solidly in historical sources. A scholar who reads Greek, he is able to approach the "strange collection of books" that make up the New Testament critically. Finally, as a former Christian, he brings neither distorting cynicism nor deluding reverence to his task.

In a phone interview from his home in London, Wilson spoke about the significance of Christmas, about the necessity of understanding Jesus in his Jewish historical context, about the prevalence of a falsely sentimentalized Jesus, and about the spiritual crisis that led to his leaving the church.

It was while he was a student, Wilson said, that he realized that certain crucial elements of Christianity (such as the idea that Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as claimed in the first three, or "synoptic" Gospels) were almost certainly mythical. "I thought, this is terrible, I've got to give up the whole thing. Then I put it to the back of my mind, as I suppose most people do. And I thought, in some sense or another, even if it's not literally true, one can go along with it." When Wilson began working on his biography of C.S. Lewis, however, he realized he could no longer remain in the church. "Lewis in some ways was a fundamentalist Christian who insisted on the literal truth of all these things. And I felt Lewis was right -- that if you are going to go along with this you ought to be able to accept it as the literal truth."

Did Wilson think that an ordinary person's experience of Christmas today carried within it a spark of Jesus' original message?

"It's very hard to answer that," Wilson replied. "Because the early Christians weren't interested in Christmas at all. When did people first start to celebrate Christmas -- three or four hundred years after Jesus had left the scene? I think the general rather cozy idea of people being kind to each other on Christmas Day owes more to Charles Dickens than to the Bible. Much more, in fact.

"I think Santa Claus in a department store is a much more influential figure than Jesus as far as modern Christmas is concerned. And when people say, it's such a pity that Christmas is so commercialized now, that's what invented Christmas. They should say, 'It's a pity the Christian Church decided to get in on this perfectly nice festival that was invented by department stores.' "

If St. Paul, who Wilson argues was largely responsible for the creation of what we now call "Christianity," had never existed, would Jesus have emerged from the many prophets who now litter the dustbin of history?

"I think he would have been absolutely insignificant," Wilson said. "Totally insignificant as far as Western people are concerned. Far less interesting than Cicero or Seneca or any of the people who brought the wisdom of the Greeks to the West. Far less interesting than Philo (of Alexandria), who adapted Greek thought into the Jewish tradition. If not for Paul saying that Jesus was a heavenly figure, he would have had no influence at all.

"And he hasn't been influential yet."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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