The Dish

Book Club: The Indispensable Jesus?

I’m sorry for not jumping into the debate more this weekend, but the pollen bukkake in DC right now has reduced my lung capacity a bit, and thinking about the resurrection is even more difficult while hooked up to a nebulizer with albuterol than is usually the case. Mercifully, many of my responses to this batch of criticism were pre-empted, rather eloquently, by this batch of counter-criticism.

A few thoughts on this question: given the many contemporaneous accounts of other religious figures rising from the dead (indeed several in the Bible itself), and given that all Christians are supposed to rise bodily from the dead as well, why is Jesus so special? Why is he “consubstantial with the Father” in ways other resurrected beings are not?

The obvious answer to this is that the early Christians obviously believed that he was uniquely divine in some form. Ehrman makes a good case that Jesus was viewed as special by his disciples in his lifetime because they deemed him to be the Jewish Messiah who would reign supreme at the end of the world. The specialness of his being the Jewish Messiah was then combined with the staggering revelation that he had risen from the dead. It was that combination – a resurrected Messiah – that upped the ante, setting the seeds for the gradual evolution of the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The story of Apollonius, otherwise very close to the story of Jesus, lacked the Messiah prophesy. And it also lacked the retroactive examination of the Hebrew Bible for various prophesies to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Moreover, as Ehrman notes, although there were countless semi-divine characters and resurrected prophets in the early Christian era, even though the human-divine admixture included angels and strange gods and the off-spring of unnatural sex between gods and humans, only two people were ever designated the “Son Of God.” One was the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and the other was Jesus, a rural apocalyptic preacher from Galilee. That is some elevated company to keep and it begs the question: why Jesus and no one else? What was so special about him?

What’s frustratingly lacking in Ehrman’s book – and it’s not its subject so it’s not Ehrman’s fault – are the teachings of Jesus and the way he lived. I don’t think you can understanding the full impact of the resurrection outside the disciples’ experience of the living Jesus, with his teachings and his healings and his miracles. For me, these remarkable stories are the missing tissue here. It is one thing for a prophet to be put to a gruesome death; it is another thing when that prophet lived and taught in such a way that he seemed to revolutionize human consciousness and then was put to death.

Jesus inverted so much of the world’s familiar lessons: don’t protect yourself in a dangerous world, make yourself vulnerable; don’t seek revenge on those who have wronged you, give them another chance to wrong you; don’t just love your friends, but love your enemies; don’t live abstemiously, give everything you have away to the poor; don’t worry about tomorrow, today will be taken care of; by all means obey the rules but never if they violate the deeper rule of love. Above all: love one another. These stories and sayings and teachings carry huge impact today, even though we have lived with them for centuries. But I try to imagine myself as one of the disciples, busily fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and not only being astounded by these ideas, but dropping my life and abandoning my family altogether and following him because of the power of his ideas and example.

Then, in a sudden development, this radically non-violent individual is seized under false pretenses and brutally tortured to death. And again, even here, it is not so much his death that resonates as the manner of his death. He refused to defend himself; he embraced the ridicule; he forgave the men driving nails into his wrists; he reached out in love to one of the poor souls hanging next to him; and he despaired. This happens after most of his loved ones either denied ever knowing him or fled. Only the women who loved him and the disciple Jesus loved stayed behind.

Now put yourself in the place of those bewildered, terrified, disloyal former followers.

In this miasma of fear, guilt, grief and disorientation, they suddenly see Jesus alive and walking around in various visions and mysterious manifestations. There you have the whiplash of the resurrection, and the obvious desire of the disciples to believe that all of it must mean something more profound than merely that Jesus was  a man of God who was unjustly put to death. He was more than that to them – and the resurrection made that indelible. And I find it perfectly reasonable to see why the disciples began to tell and re-tell the stories of Jesus life as a way to keep him alive in their hearts and minds and to buttress and deepen the meaning of this revelation. I find it perfectly human to re-enact his last supper with them as a way to keep his memory and his presence in their lives.

In other words, Occam’s razor needs to take into account the life-changing ideas and the soul-changing way of life Jesus of Nazareth gave the world. When I say a deeper perfection lies behind the fallible game of telephone that the Gospels are, I mean simply this. The words that Jefferson excavated, the stories that Tolstoy marveled at, the way of life that Francis of Assisi embraced, all of this and so much more come from this man’s words and life. There is always something astounding when the victims of violence refuse to fight back and seek to love instead. It defuses all of our evolutionary impulses. It negates what was previously thought of as human. It instantly makes one think of something divine.

There are many ways of understanding this, and Christians, as Ehrman shows, came up with countless permutations on the notion of God-Made-Flesh within the Trinity. None of it makes any worldly sense, the Trinity especially. It makes sense only as paradox and mystery, not as literal truth. And so I do not have a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because the Gospels don’t either. He is a vision, an angel, a man who walks through doors only to reveal himself in the flesh … and then he withdraws again from view. There is no single, literal account in the Jesus stories of his resurrection, which is one reason I prefer to leave its precise contours a little opaque. Ehrman suggests the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead might be an instance of a very common form of vision of recently dead loved ones – which was not unique to the disciples but witnessed countless times across the globe then and now. And I sure keep that option open.

But because it is a mystery, I do not discount the possibility of a literal resurrection either. What matters to me is the life-changing message of Jesus, potent and rendered in unforgettable metaphor and parable, lived by him to the astonishment of all who encountered him, and speaking of a form of justice, of life and of love that we rightly associate with some power beyond us – because so much in our evolutionary make-up screams against it and yet somewhere within us we recognize it is the only transcendence we are capable of. In that sense, Jesus was the intersection of timeless truth with time. And nothing could be more miraculous in the long and brutal history of humankind than that.

(The entire discussion for How Jesus Became God is compiled here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and please keep them under 500 words.

Photos: the road to Emmaus by Caravaggio; the Epstein statue of Lazarus in New College, Oxford; my own personal Jesus; and a cross at Hatches Harbor at the end of Cape Cod.)