Imagine you read a story about an amazing place. In fact, the place is so amazing that it’s utterly unique. Of course, you know stories of other utopias and incredible realms, but none of these compares to the combination of abundance, peace, joy, and virtue of this place. You recognize the description of this amazing place as being unique, and you think that such a description is unprecedented in the history of human letters.
And then you argue that because the description is radically unique and unprecedented, it must therefore be true. No one could possibly have conceived of such a place had it not actually existed.
Essentially, this is Tom Gilson’s argument for the existence of his version of Christ, by way of the canonized Gospels. Jesus, so he says, was too ethically perfect, simultaneously powerful beyond human ken yet completely devoted to the spiritual welfare of others (while remaining unconcerned about his own physical comfort), to have been a literary invention of the Gospel writers.
There is an aspect of Jesus’ greatness that I think even the most committed skeptic must recognize. Jesus displayed a certain ethical perfection that ought to be uncontroversial, even among those who think his story is nothing more than a story, and even among those who aren’t sure that he exhibited every virtue to its fullest.
I use the word perfection advisedly. This is a side of Jesus Christ that I did not see until recently. I have discussed it with several major New Testament scholars who agreed with me that it has implications they had not previously seen.
For those who know Jesus Christ, it is cause to worship him more profoundly.
For those who know Christ, it’s also one of the simplest and yet strongest ways I know of to explain why the Gospel accounts must be true.
According to Gilson, Jesus is bar-none the most powerful being ever to allow himself to be humiliated and killed, and by doing so he provided a rescue for humankind. He could have used his power to save himself, but instead he stood fast and accepted his torment so that humankind would have a way to live in eternal bliss. Humankind, we recall, committed the most heinous act ever–chomping fruit. Actually, it was two people who had chomped fruit, but never mind….
Before looking further into Gilson’s argument, we must note why he argues at all: mainly, he challenges the “Jesus legend” argument. This argument comes in two different flavors, one in which Jesus is conceived as a not a real person but a myth and one in which Jesus is conceived as a real person who later had miracles, powers, and deity-status conferred upon him by followers.
In one sense, the fact Gilson feels the need to make this argument represents cultural progress. Evidently, the folks who have been trumpeting C.S. Lewis’s “trilemma” as if it solved anything finally realize that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself — as interpreted through later Christology and religious indoctrination — carries zero weight. We don’t care about Jesus quotes because they are hearsay. We have no way to verify them one way or the other, so they have no value. No, the fundamental issue really concerns the extent to which one or more of the canonized Gospels can, in part or in whole, be considered historically reliable testimony of the life, statements, motivations, and actions of Jesus.
Gilson asserts not only that they can be considered reliable, but also that one need only read the Gospels to see that they are reliable, that they must be. No need to look for other historical documentation or artifacts. Just read your Bible in a good translation and perhaps a proper biblical commentary, and you’ll know it’s true. Yes, I am getting snarky.
Gilson’s is a painfully ridiculous argument, a caution to anyone who thinks that historical evidence and context are overrated. First of all, even if we granted that the Jesus of the canonized Gospels — yes, I keep stressing the canonized Gospels; this is to remind us that the Gospels themselves have historical origins and precursors, and that other non-canonized Gospels and writings exist — is both ethically perfect in a certain way and completely devoted to others, this perfection-devotion combination cannot serve on its own as evidence of Jesus’s historicity.
Gilson argues that the particular perfection-devotion combination embodied in Jesus is so unique and unprecedented as to make pure literary invention unlikely. But on its face, the argument would have to accept God the Father as no less perfect and devoted than Jesus. God Himself would be a literary precedent. Moses, Joshua, David and the heritage of Jewish prophets, prophecies, and messianic ideas that form an active, dynamic culture in Jesus’s Second Temple Era context: all these make models of ethics and self-sacrifice that can be seen as inspiration for the Jesus story. Other preceding personages, such as the Buddha, may have had their stories brought over to the writers, editors, philosophers, and polemicists trying to establish Christianity and document its foundational narratives.
So, is the Jesus character really unique? Is it really unprecedented and a bridge too far from already imagined and available cultural material? In both cases, the answer is no. This is not a hostile or haughty no, but a no that advocates for the necessity of bringing first-century Jewish materials into the discussion of both Jesus’ teachings and Christians’ view of Jesus. For example, Karin Hedner Zetterholm’s Jewish Interpretation of the Bible reviews the early Jesus movement and demonstrates how the historical situation and rabbinic parables preceding and responding to the Jesus movement allow us to see how both Jesus and Christianity emerge from a Judaism that is itself emergent and differentiating itself from the Christian movement.
The essays at the end of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, including “Jewish Movements of the New Testament Period,” “Messianic Movements,” and “The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics,” shed light on the connections and continuities of Jesus/Christianity with Jewish precedents and ideas.
Gislon’s argument about the unique and unprecedented nature of Jesus’s character don’t hold up, and so the argument’s already tenuous grasp of an historicity component fails too. The argument is yet another case of something the literary critic Harold Bloom noted about Jesus, that Jesus is invariably a reflection of his believers and their ideas and desires.
The important thing about Gilson’s Jesus is that he is starting to look too much like legend. This is what Gilson is fighting, the fading of an image and set of ideas in a culture that has outgrown the fantastical parts of both.