One popular argument for Jesus’ claim to be divine is the scenario presented by C.S. Lewis known as the ‘Lord, Liar, or Lunatic’ argument. For those who may be unfamiliar with Lewis’ argument it gives people three possible responses to Jesus’ claim to divinity. (1) Jesus was a crazy fanatic and therefore his claims are nothing more than a delusion. (2) Jesus was a sinister liar who wanted to gather a following for some deviant purposes other than those he presented. (3) Jesus was actually Lord of all and therefore one’s decision to accept or reject his claim has eternal consequences.
In recent months I have read material from Bart D. Ehrman and John Hick that have destroyed Lewis’ argument with one simple suggestion: maybe Jesus never said those things at all. It may be that this is just the deification of Jesus by his followers over a period of several decades after his death. First, Jesus’ presence was felt in the hearts of believers. Second, the body was missing and this evolved into the rumor that he had resurrected from the dead. Third, people like Paul of Tarsus incorporated Hellenistic elements in this Messianic sect of Judaism and over time it became Christianity.
The historical Jesus accepted by ‘The Jesus Seminar’, Marcus Borg, J.D. Crossan, and others is the Jesus underneath the Christ of Christendom. This Jesus probably said many of the wonderful, ethical things said during the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. He probably proclaimed a form of the ‘golden rule’ found in all the world’s major religions. He probably boiled Torah down to its essence–love God and others. He probably lived a very moral life. He probably talked a lot about the fatherhood of God. He probably told parables like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. He probably forgave people and he taught his disciples to be pacifist. This is the historical Jesus of scholarship.
This is all fine and dandy but I have always wondered why the historical Jesus turned out to be the nicer Jesus of the gospels. It is usually proposed that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel. Isn’t Jesus a bit creepy and secretive in that gospel? Isn’t it true that the Jesus of the gospels talks a lot more about hell and judgment than most of those topics we like to attribute to him? Isn’t Jesus a bit racist and sexist in the Gospel of John when he treats the woman at the well like someone who owes him something and who ought to know who he really is at his essence?
I guess I am wondering if we use the criteria of historical Jesus scholarship why have we not yet heard any scholars conclude that Jesus may have been Lewis’ madman or lying liar? Maybe the historical Jesus did talk about hell, and his own divinity, and maybe the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ makes him only more dogmatic and hard headed than the Pharisees. Maybe this Jesus who talked about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood said those weird things and his followers who were drawn to him smoothed it over a bit.
Why is it not possible that as the gospel went to the Jews and then to the Greeks it became important to make Jesus more acceptable. Maybe the “golden rule” was taken from common religious ethics and placed in the mouth of Jesus to make him sounder kind. Maybe?
I know it is more likely that if the historical Jesus does not look like the Jesus of the gospels he probably looked like the good Jesus that we all love and adore because how else did he change the lives of so many people? But if we are going to be objective historians we cannot rule out that he may have been an absolute wacko! He may have said many of those unacceptable saying. It could be that his small sect of disciples made him a nicer person as they tried to add members to their dying sect? Maybe they softened Jesus up a bit so he would be more palatable.
Whatever the case may be I think this is why so-called “historical” Jesus scholarship usually ends up at a dead end. We always make the Jesus we want. We have a ‘Jesus buffet’ where we pick and choose what we want to accept about the Jesus of the gospels and reject what taste like onions. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus was more the onion than the apple. I look forward to reading the historical Jesus scholar that depicts this type of Jesus.