How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a comment by humanist Dwight Jones in response to Hoffmann’s post titled Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No that begins

As a Humanist I view Christ as one too, a philosopher who was instructing our species

Jones’ and Hoffmann’s concept of humanism is too effete, elitist, esoteric and impractical for my taste, but that aside, Jones’ comment sums up what Jesus means as a cultural icon. Biblical scholars can see how the gospel authors put words into Jesus’ mouth so that He could serve as the spokesman for their own theological agendas. Schweitzer famously said that historical Jesus scholars each tend to recreate a Jesus in their own image. Existentialist John Carroll even finds an existentialist Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is not just for the religious. He is the focal icon of the western culture through whom religious and nonreligious alike have sought to advance their own philosophies, political programs, ethics, values.

Dieter Georgi had an article titled “The Interest in Life of Jesus Theology as a Paradigm for the Social History of Biblical Criticism” in the Harvard Theological Review in 1992 (85:1, 51-83) that surveys how evolving and changing societies simultaneously changed their views of Jesus to reflect their own needs and interests.

I summarize here a few examples to illustrate how Jesus has changed with the times. I conclude with a note on the context of current historical Jesus studies, and their fragile foundation in a certain defensive dogmatism.

Late antiquity and early Middle Ages

The interest in Jesus of Nazareth as a divine man dwindled and was replaced by that in Christ as king and pantocrator

This was fueled through a focus on a superficial view of the Christology of Paul and of the Book of Revelation. The Gospels and Acts were read in the shadow of these.

The Council of Chalcedon (451), for example, like Paul, neglected the idea that Jesus’ miracles performed as a man were essential elements and proofs of his divinity.

What this coincided with, according to Georgi, was a dramatic change in the social and economic conditions of Mediterranean society. The church had ceased to be primarily “an urban religion”. It followed the leads of the governing forces of the empire away from cities that had become impoverished sources for cheap labour needed on rural estates and industrial plants in the countryside.

Primary sources of wealth were war and rural incomes.

The church became a small town and rural religion. It used the slum cities as pressure groups to root out the remaining pagan, heretical and Jewish “riff-raff”.

Southern and western Europe of 11th and 12th centuries

Here cities and markets revived. Craftsmen and merchants emerged as a new social group. Industry and commerce once again became major sources of wealth. Universities sprang up in the growing cities, and proved a vehicle for upwardly mobile burghers.

In this environment the interest in Jesus as a superhuman individual became prominent again. This Jesus was touchable as a human but at the same time much larger than ordinary life, ready again to influence and determine human beings, and now in particular those of the new, bourgeois class.

The new class of burghers, craftsmen and merchants attained special social and political privileges, lower than landlords, but higher than peasants, and wielding a new influence on society.

The formation of conscientious and responsible burghers called for an ideal that was able to inspire and direct individuals who would represent and shape the new societal vision. The evolving life of Jesus theology would provide that germinal stimulation.

There are many details and complexities that could be covered in discussing the contributions of Anselm, Hildebrand and others, but the essential Jesus that emerged at this time was an outstanding exemplar for the new classes to follow. He typified the extraordinarily gifted and reasonable person, an ideal model for the new society.

In this environment the interest in Jesus as a superhuman individual became prominent again. This Jesus was touchable as a human but at the same time much larger than ordinary life, read again to influence and determine human beings, and now in particular those of the new, bourgeois class.

Italian nobleman turned English theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm (1033-1109) took a strong interest in education as a means of training the person’s will. This interest in education extended beyond monasteries and sought the moral and religious education more generally of the young. The aim of education was to instill a sense of personal responsibility and freedom among individuals. There was a new trust in the whole idea of “rational thinking and respective inquiry that is accompanied by the interest in consciousness, self, free will, and ‘rectitudo’, being right and doing right. . . ”

And what did this mean for the view of Jesus? These educational goals were said to have been in Adam at his creation, were lost with the Fall, but “restored through Jesus’ Christ’s conscious will demonstrated by his incarnate life and sacrificial death.”

It followed from this that the whole doctrine of the incarnation took on “a psychologically realistic and personal flavor again. . .”

The life of Jesus gained a reasonable and therefore clear dimension, was placed in a legal frame of reference, and thus related to the social order as well.

The monk Hildebrand who became Pope Gregory VII made a significant contribution to promoting this view of Jesus, too.

Martin Luther and early Protestantism

Georgi sees in Luther’s view of the synoptic gospels as inferior to the Gospel of John “a rather critical stance” towards the historical Jesus. For Luther, the stories and sayings of Jesus were merely prefaces to the central message of the cross.

Subsequent protestants, however, were more interested in the improvement of the individual through education and self-discipline, and in creating a society that imitated the kingdom of God on earth. And the Jesus of choice was the image of the appropriate ideals for these goals.

Controlled education and discipline were the basic requirements for the new idea of progress. The Kingdom of God was to be extended not only in church organization but in society as well. Jesus was the ethical exemplar of all Christians — and all were called in one sense to be missionaries in working to build the moral community. Jesus came to represent the triumph of reason over temptation, and embodied freedom and an inner paradise available to all believers. This freedom was freedom from the old orthodoxies.

17th and 18th centuries

This is the age of Pietism and Enlightenment. Jesus was to be personally experienced. Jesus was also depicted as the ideal personality. Like the ideal hero, Jesus possessed “genius, ingenuity, intellectual presence, insight, foresight, oversight, passion . . .  trust in God.”

Both Pietism and the Enlightenment portrayed Jesus as the person who transformed the cultic and metaphysical elements of religion into the personal and private, essential for the liberated bourgeois individual in its stewardship efforts in a born-again, that is, enlightened life.

Jesus stood for the concept of mature individual consciousness in which others could find themselves and were enabled to risk and to regain themselves, thus discovering their soul and true life, authenticity and identity, propriety, and with that, it was to be hoped, also property. Talents, prefigured by Jesus, and imitated in the educated, pious, and reasonable life, were understood as god-given rights in critical opposition to everything that owed its existence merely to tradition, status, or class.

It was also in this time, the time of the Enlightenment and the emergence of historical studies, that the first scientific approach to the life of Jesus appeared. This was from Reimarus (1694-1768), whose work and critiques Avalos says have never been surpassed (The End

Hermann Samuel Reimarus, oil painting, private...
Image via Wikipedia

of Biblical Studies).

This scientific approach is a significant benchmark in Jesus studies. It represents an interest in “objectifying [the] verifiability” of the life of Jesus. Georgi doesn’t spell it out himself, but my understanding is that this is in a sense the beginning of the idea of a uncovering a “history” of Jesus — a history in the sense of something that points to what is or is not verifiable, objective fact. Not just belief or faith.

One interesting point to observe is the way the paradigms of other heroes were also filtered into making Jesus what he was, too. Machiavelli’s Prince could be seen as shrewd and noble, Alexander the Great could fascinate as a divine man hero. The best qualities of such figures were also projected into Jesus. In the case of Reimarus (whose 1719 dissertation was on Machiavellism), even the Prince’s less open qualities – his need to keep secret his long-term ambitions for acquiring the kingdom — came to be ennobled in Jesus himself. Jesus’ own failure in godforsakenness nonetheless addressed an ethical ideal that answered to the needs of those seeking social change.

But there’s an interesting observation of Georgi’s here.

Reimarus . . . saw an ethic in Jesus’ moral testament that survived the disaster of his political mission . . . This ethic was in fact a republican morality. It did not need a lasting superman. It was closer to Machiavelli’s Discourses than to the Prince. The Jesus of Reimarus built on trust and a rather relaxed attitude, and from that he projected the concept of the will of the heavenly father who presupposed the good intentions of the heart and a reasonable sentiment . . .  This ethic contained a practical piety in the perfection of an emotive heart and healthy reason.

This ethic that Reimarus attributed to Jesus, Georgi remarks, has remained relatively unchanged ever since. What has changed, however, since Reimarus, has been the personality attributed to Jesus. The ironic side of Jesus was replaced by adoration of Jesus’ genius as a man.

18th, 19th and 20th centuries, Jesus the genius

The view that Jesus had been a genius of sorts became the dominant view of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, not only in Germany, but also in western Europe and North America, among both Protestants and Catholics. The differences between conservative and liberal christology in this respect were of minor importance.

During the revolutionary decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (French Revolution, Socialist and Liberal movements), influential philosopher Hegel moved away from the historical Jesus of his early years to a Johannine and more Pauline christology.

Portrait of David Strauss.
Image via Wikipedia

But with the waning of the revolutionary tendencies, the interest in the historical Jesus returned. David Strauss attempted to reverse this interest with his scandalous Life of Jesus, but failed. He had attempted to argue that the relevance of Jesus was not in his earthly historical life, but in his afterlife, and as the “collective consciousness” of his disciples. Other scholars, including Strauss’s teacher, F.C. Baur, played down the post-Easter elements of the Jesus story, and insisted rather on the importance of the historical Jesus.

Even a working-class representative among the scholarly community, Wilhelm Weitling, supported this bourgeois view of Jesus as the historical ideal. He wrote that the teachings and actions of Jesus exemplified ideal communism. For Weitling, Jesus “was the great far-sighted individual of a rather intimate, indeed a bourgeois privacy, a great personality still.”

After the 1848 restoration and secure reestablishment of bourgeois status in Europe, interest in the life of Jesus continued apace. Ernest Renan wrote La Vie de Jésus (1863).

Woodburytype of Ernest Renan
Ernest Renan

This work was something like a historical novel with romantic sentiment and idyllic character. Here Jesus was depicted as a unique personality, full of unspoiled naivité but at the same time full of dignity and wisdom, the ideal image of bourgeois nostalgia. The fact that Renan’s Jesus was an idealized rural figure who was destroyed by the terrifying and deadly metropolis did not contradict the bourgeois flavor; instead it reflected the many bourgeois portrayals of country life. The description of Jesus’ end fitted the views of liberal bourgeoisie as well: Renan’s representative of an uncorrupted biblical Judaism was destroyed by a hardened Jewish establishment. There is was again: the great individual Jesus, sufficiently human to allow identification with him, but also sufficiently lifted above the masses that he could be seen as a beacon.

The turn of the twentieth century saw many crises and revolutionary changes. Among these were signs of a “Burgher-Dammerung”, a Bourgeois Twilight. (I think here in part of the rising socialist and labour movements in politics at this time.) Georgi discusses here the role of the history of religion school in Germany in particular. This, he explains, “was part of an international educational movement that challenged the structures and goals of established education on all levels. The founding of the University of Chicago and the immediate involvement of that institution in the city’s plighted life was one of the major signs of this movement on the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean.”

This involved the criticism of the life of Jesus theology by such scholars as Weiss, Wrede and Schweitzer.

Reaction set in, the twilight was to be reversed. And we see the origins of the so-called New Quest for the historical Jesus in the early 1950s, not only in Germany, but worldwide. “[A]nd its continuing life were and still are a complete surprise for the historian — at least on the surface.”

There were no new methods or truly new methodological insights, no new texts or any other new historical evidence that had direct bearing on the problems of historical authenticity of the Jesus tradition.

The reversal of the principle of burden of proof in favor of those who claimed authenticity of material that was obviously and thoroughly shaped by faith in the continued presence of Jesus after his death did not happen by way of methodological argument but by way of decree. The arguments that the supporters of the New Quest make against the few remaining critics are in fact of a theological nature. The governing argument is that faith since its inception was connected intimately with the historical reality of Jesus, as a historical person . . . . The kerygma of the church essentially was anchored in the teaching and actions of Jesus, so the claim goes. If that connection were cut, the faith of the early church would not have existed, and our faith would turn into illusion. Only the historical Jesus would prevent theology from sliding into myth, docetism, and mystery religion.

Again the old interest in a life of Jesus theology forced its way into New Testament scholarship.

Ah, so now it is becoming clearer to me why Schweitzer’s call for a Christian faith that is not dependent upon the historical Jesus has been ignored. Schweitzer recognized that sound historical method cannot verify even so much as the existence of the historical Jesus. Ah, too scary by far. That explains why when I point out on my blog that very fact, that sound historical method when applied to historical Jesus studies today exposes them as a sham and little more than pseudoscholarship, I am met with “flat-earther”, “creationist”, “bloody weird” and “misrepresentation” and “failure to understand” as the only reasoned responses left in the arsenal of the historicists.

On a positive side, this indicates to me that historical Jesus studies are attempting to sustain themselves on feet of clay. The threats of scientific studies have met them and their current reaction is not scientific but dogmatic. Hence its irrational and hostile responses to the critiques of logic and method and requirements of evidence. Surely this is its swansong. Who knows how much worse the irrational reaction will become before it finally blows itself out.

Historical Jesus studies as such are a recent development. They are as much another form of “history wars” as history has ever witnessed. And it will take major social shifts before the currently dominant voices run their course.

In the meantime, academics especially have a responsibility to fully grasp and acknowledge where their own biases fit against the larger backdrop of intellectual and social history. But what short term hope is there of this much when, as Scot McKnight has pointed out, and as was embarrassingly exposed by associate professor and biblical historian James McGrath in correspondence on this blog a while ago when he failed to recognize one of the most famous axioms of one of the founding fathers of modern historiography, mainstream historical Jesus seem to know and understand nix about the history and basics of the discipline of history outside their own cloistered bible-lined walls. Sure, Crossley and a few others can discuss the roles of the ideologies of history etc, but that’s kinda putting the cart before the horse, and can serve only to offer a veneer of professionalism over what is basically a self-deceptive exercise that ought to have come to an end some time between Reimarus and Schweitzer.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs”

  1. Since posting I have added a more detailed discussion of

    (a) the contribution of Reimarus, in particular his description of the ethics of Jesus that is still the dominant view of Jesus’ ethics today;

    (b) the meaning of his contribution to the “scientific” study of Jesus’ life; and

    (c) an additional note on what passes for historical method in my conclusion.

  2. My undergraduate degree is in history, so I know I’m biased. I’ve never worked as an historian, but my loyalties lie with Herodotus not Augustine. When I see departments like Women’s Studies and Black Studies in American universities, I can’t help but think that it’s because my brethren in the past failed. We failed to address the needs of the all peoples, nations, genders, and socio-economic classes. So they splintered off and formed their own departments.

    Having said that, I don’t think that’s the story with NT studies. They appear to have grown out of universities’ religious departments, putting on the airs of historians, but remaining loyal to the faith. I’m reminded of St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous quote, “Philosophy is the handmaiden of religion.” Well, if that’s true, then history it its stable boy. He might be allowed up on the back porch to polish the master’s boots, but he’s not allowed in the house.

    I say there’s no reason why historians can’t reclaim the study of the history of Jesus, Christianity, or any other religious or social movement. If anything, the current crop of NT scholars have amply demonstrated that starting out as a divinity student only serves to cloud one’s perspective on historiography.

  3. One detail I find of particular interest is what Georgi says happened in the early twentieth century: historical Jesus studies resorting to decree when faced with the failure of scientific history to answer the needs of faith. And there are scholars today who are still insisting that the “quest for the historical Jesus” is a worthwhile pursuit despite the total absence of anything new that can be brought to the exercise.

    History has become a tool for the dogmatists. It is used to “prove” that there is an objective reality to their faith. The precise nature of that objective reality may not be discernible, but what is important is that “It’s there!”

    This is the sort of “history” that the Nazi and the Communist states decreed.

    But as we’ve seen, it’s not only those of faith who are its mouthpieces. That’s why I suggest that the question is bigger than the originating faith community. Jesus belongs to a much larger community than the narrowly defined religious ones. This makes the nature of history in relation to Jesus much more difficult to be recognized for what it really is.

    1. I own a Russian history book I bought back during the Cold war. It’s called “Страницы Ицтории” (Pages of History). In it, they briefly they describe the theory that Kiev was founded by Vikings and that the Kievskaya Rus’ were originally Norsemen. They then dismiss the idea by saying, “We don’t think so.”

      I’m reminded of that line quite frequently when reading or listening to NT scholars. Take for example what Dale Martin says in his lecture (available online at the Yale web site) on the historical Jesus. You might find some kooks on the Internet who promote the idea a historical Jesus never existed, says Yale Dale, but “no reputable scholar” in the field today believes that.

      Finally, check out the level of discourse from the “honorable men” of scholarship here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christ_myth_theory. Just count the number of times mythicists are compared to Holocaust deniers. Note how many times the words “crazy” and “extremist” are used.

      Does the Jesus Myth theory have any merit? The supreme council of NT scholarship says, “Мы думаю что нет.” (We don’t think so.)

  4. “Jones’ and Hoffmann’s concept of humanism is too effete, elitist, esoteric and impractical for my taste.”

    Sounds like your taste runs to properly dessicated philosophies – anything related to the potential within our species, past or present, is of no account.

    Instead we are given a half-dozen mash-ups of the most influential Humanist as a chimerical figure.

    If you must, but I don’t really see the need. Christ was an idea whose time had come, and his teachings filled a moral vacuum within our own kind.

    1. The idea of a figure whose time had come has a nice poetic ring to it, but I don’t see how it fits the evidence. The Christ that entered the world did not do so on the strength of his teaching credentials. He taught nothing new. His teachings never went beyond the ideals well known among Jews and non-Jews in ancient Roman society. For Paul he was no teacher but a cultic god with whom a believer identified by a “death and resurrection” experience. As Engberg-Pedersen shows, it was all a good Stoic-type “conversion” experience that delivered the convert to a new identity. The values involved were the same as those for any good Stoic. The Gospel of Mark has him teach in obscure coded language.

      (I would like to be informed that I have misinterpreted your reference to “dumbshit masses”, by the way. I would like to be informed that the expression did not reflect your own perceptions of “masses”. I see the human potential of masses being realized right now in Tahrir Square.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading