Will the real Jesus please stand up?
by Justin Brierley
Justin Brierley examines the latest reinventions of the Jesus of history. Ten years on from Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, fresh rumours of who Jesus really was still shift books in their hundreds of thousands.
You could almost hear the collective sigh of exasperation (heaved by 1,000 Bible scholars) when Richard Dawkins tweeted a link to an article about the historical Jesus to his 850,000 followers in October. Unsurprisingly, the arch-atheist turned out to be promoting a speaking event which threw doubt on the traditional view of Christ. But this was more than your run-of-the-mill scepticism.
The speaker in question, self-published author Joseph Atwill, was presenting his thesis that Jesus Christ was a fictional character, invented by the Roman authorities to pacify the revolutionary sentiments of the Jewish people. The fact that Atwill had neither scholarly credentials (he’s a retired computer programmer) nor a jot of support from any academic in historical studies didn’t seem to matter. After all, everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, don’t they? Especially when it comes to Jesus.
Conjuring a Christ in our own image is an increasingly common phenomenon. Believers of different stripes have variously cast him as a socialist revolutionary (Terry Eagleton), a dreadlocked Rastafarian (Robert Beckford), a pacifist (Shane Claiborne), or a Rambo-figure ready for a scrap with any liberal theologian who crosses his path (Mark Driscoll). There are plenty of non-Christian interpretations out there too, from the secular liberal painted by Philip Pullman in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate Books) to the New Age guru portrayed by Deepak Chopra in Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (HarperOne). With so many attempts to recast the first-century Jew, how do we tell him apart from the other incarnations that lay claim to his name, and what lies behind the recent drive by certain scholars to give Jesus a new identity?
HOT-HEAD, HUSBAND OR HOAX?
Reinventing the character of Jesus goes back a long way. By the second century AD, various religious sects were writing their own accounts of the life of Christ that bore little connection to the first-hand testimony of the Gospels. The popular revival of interest in these so-called ‘Gnostic’ writings was led by Dan Brown, whose 2003 religious thriller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday) mixed fact and fiction together (and lo, ‘faction’ was born). Whether it was intended or not, the novel’s runaway success led many of his readers to believe that the real history of Jesus had been covered up by sinister Church bodies for propaganda purposes…
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