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Who was the historical Jesus?

“Jesus is both God and man.” This is the central mystery of Christianity: ludicrous to a Jewish nation who acknowledged only one God, but perfectly acceptable to Greeks and Romans whose gods were both men and women. Fortunately for this doctrine, Christianity broke away from its Jewish roots and flourished in the Greek islands and Roman territories. Jesus was immediately accepted as both human and divine.

Naturally, the divine stories took precedence. He turned water into wine; he raised the dead; he walked on water, etc. Why repeat mundane things when there are miraculous events to describe? The Greeks and Romans loved it. It reminded them of their god Zeus, who was pictured with a thunderbolt and could use it whenever he wanted to.

But how about us? We’re not into the Roman and Greek mythology. Still, many Christians down through the ages have preferred the supernatural dogmas. The Catholic Church, for one, has emphasized the miraculous aspects of the sacraments and preached the heavenly visions of Mary. But others have pulled back from the miraculous and wondered why we don’t talk more about the human Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 and has continued to this day in the Westar Institute in California. It started with a group of about 150 critical scripture scholars of all faiths who were interested in discovering the “historical Jesus,” that is, the human Jesus who lived and worked and died in Galilee and Jerusalem during the reign of some historical figures like Herod and Pilate, and was mentioned (if we can trust the source) by the Jewish historian, Josephus.

One of the founders of the seminar was the Irish-born John Dominic Crossan, a classmate of mine, who wrote the classic 500-page book called: “The Historical Jesus, the life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.” The book starts with 13 pages of scriptural quotes — some from non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and the Papyrus Edgerton which were written years before our first Gospel, Mark. These quotes were selected as “things he probably said,” and portray a man on fire with his mission to bring meaning to the lives of his fellow peasants who had lost it.

The two chapters I like the best are entitled: “Magician and Prophet” and “Magic and Meal.” Dom explores each of the 32 “miracles” listed in the four gospels and shows how magical they are. There is no doubt the historical Jesus had learned the miraculous systems of Elijah and Eisha as well as the other traveling magicians, and used them with great effect. This is not to deny the possibility of divinity in these actions, but only to point out that divinity was probably not needed.

Reading this book is refreshing, not just because I keep hearing the musical Irish brogue of my brilliant classmate, but also because I begin to hear the Galilean accent of a man who dared to challenge the ruling elite. You remember that only the High Priests and his Temple gurus were empowered to handle the sick and lame and those with leprosy. And here comes Jesus who does it himself and then sends them to the priests, almost “in your face.”

I marvel at the magicians I see on TV. I can find no earthly explanation for the disappearance and re-appearance of playing cards hundreds of yards apart. But that’s the skill and wonder of magic. I know God and the supernatural have nothing to do with it, but if I didn’t know better, I’d believe it. In the days of Jesus, they couldn’t possibly know better and they believed it. And I don’t think they were ever the worse for it.

Bill Cummings blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.