Questions about Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus) are among the most pressing in life. Distracted by the needs of survival and a malaise of modern life, still, at times, thoughts of meaning, death, and the soul are at least occasionally matters of frightening perplexity for most people.
The myth of Jesus (I use myth here not as “legend,” but as “story full of meaning”) is well-known. The dying God who embraces all who come to him and grants them life forever beyond death is powerful. The image of sacrifice, of all-forgiving love, is frequent in literature, music, and culture.
The disappointments of faith and institutions of faith are also well-known. Floods still kill thousands. Religious institutions still oppress people in their power. Jesus seems to have changed nothing in the tangible sense.
Is Yeshua real? The idea that Yeshua is a legendary person who either was made up by some deceitful apostles or a minor religious teacher whose followers embellished into the divine savior figure is suspected by a sizable segment of inquirers, but rejected by the large majority of historians.
One of the few historians who does doubt that Yeshua existed at all is Robert Price (see The Historical Jesus: Five Views, ed. Bailby and Eddy, IVP Academic, 2009). Using a series of arguments painful to read, Price suggests that Yeshua is a legend contrived through a variety of phenomena. First, the pervasive myth of dying-rising gods gave rise to many mystery cults in the time of the early church. Second, miracle stories of deities and demigods were common, but we do not believe them. By analogy, neither should we believe Yeshua’s miracle stories. Third, many of Yeshua’s actions and teachings affirm the teachings of the early church, but we should apply the criterion of dissimilarity, doubting any event or saying that could have been created by the early church to bolster their practice and faith. Fourth, the letters of the New Testament, especially of Paul, know only of a dying-rising Yeshua, suggesting the other stories may not yet have been finalized. Fifth, many stories of Yeshua can be explained as passages from the Hebrew Bible transformed into tales of a contemporary messiah.
The Yeshua of history, according to Price is a combination of mystery religion, the dying-rising god cults, the invention of tales of a figure who fulfills the Hebrew Bible, and the self-authorizing fiction of the early church to advance its aims.
Why don’t more historians agree with this Christ-myth theory? A few reasons include some omissions and distortions in Price’s case. James Dunn, in his response, refers to “the improbability of the total invention of a figure who purportedly had lived within a generation of the inventors, or the imposition of such a myth on a minor figure from Galilee.” While there are many specific evidences against the Christ-myth theory (external evidence for Yeshua such as in Josephus and Tacitus, the biographical details about Yeshua that are in Paul’s letters, the dissimilarity with the Hebrew Bible in some cases, and so on), the most important observation is that Yeshua’s spreading fame and influence is absurd considering his relative unimportance during his lifetime.
Why make an obscure teacher from Galilee the world savior? If you’re inventing a myth, surely you can do better. And as you grow in influence and geographical hold in the empire, surely you can do better than a man who cried the night before his death, who suffered weakly on a cross, and who cried out about God abandoning him in his last moments. The story of Yeshua is incredibly unlikely to have been invented by ambitious missionaries of the early church. Far from endorsing the action of the church, Yeshua’s teachings have equally condemned the church to divine judgment for centuries, for the way that Yeshua taught is no justification of powerful religion (as the Christ-myth theory contends) but a call for simple, humble community which cannot enrich a single priest or parson.
Is there more to Yeshua than the dying-rising part? It is no surprise that the death of one who loved his friends enough to lay down his life has captured the imagination of millions. Nor is it a surprise that the concept of life after death, in its particularly Jewish form which is bodily resurrection, is an appealing religious belief. And one of Yeshua’s most important followers said that his death and resurrection are “of first importance” in the story.
But none of Yeshua’s earlier followers understood the death of resurrection of Yeshua without reference to the larger story of his life. Yeshua, the Jewish teacher, embraced the teachings of the Israelite prophets about the coming time of God’s reign on earth (the kingdom of God) and added some surprising twists. His death and resurrection must be understood in the larger context of Israel’s story and God’s announced plan to spread his name through Israel to the nations.
So much has happened in the last few millennia to subtly alter the Yeshua story. It appears to many people that Yeshua’s message is simply: “Believe in me and though everything is unjust and cruelly oppressive right now, someday you will have bliss in the life that comes after death.”
No wonder people react with distaste to a message like that. Sure, it is comforting and many have found it sufficient to calm their fear of death and to hope for something better yet to come. But the living want something more than a future salve for wounds that go unanswered here and now.
Yeshua never advocated a let-the-world-rot-while-you-wait-for-eternal-bliss teaching. Anyone would know this if they studied Yeshua’s life.
In brief, Yeshua formed a movement with an inner and outer circle. The outer circle heard vague stories about the coming kingdom of God, good teachings about Jewish ethics, and hard to understand declarations about Yeshua’s identity as something more than a man. The inner circle got more, not only additional teaching, but the advantage of staying close, hearing the stories repeatedly, and the example of Yeshua’s actions. Yeshua healed any disease in his presence and reversed any death he witnessed. There was no place for disease, disability, or death in the vicinity of Yeshua. In a phenomenon unparalleled before or since, demonic powers revealed themselves to Yeshua and much unseen evil was defeated. The much-proclaimed messiahship of Yeshua was not what people expected, then or now, and he was reticent to speak of his identity without adding mystery and twists to the usual story in which people imagined messiah as a king who oppressed Israel’s enemies. Yeshua’s life revealed a very different messiah than many believed in at the time or even now in our time.
Yeshua’s ideal legacy, never completely achieved but in theory still possible, is in groups of people dedicated to his teaching, to comforting mourners, to providing for each other’s needs, in being sacrificial in love with each other, and believing in a better world to come while making this world better for those who care to join in the community and even for those outside the community. Instead of a let-the-world-rot religion, Yeshua’s is a heal-the-world-one-group-of-people-at-a-time community model.
Even the humblest congregation or church has the potential to be a place of healing and service, making a difference in the world, small or large. So, yes, there is more to Yeshua that his dying and rising. The dying and rising are part of a defined plan to better the world both now and when the great time of redemption comes.
How do we know whether to accept the story of Yeshua as true, something that really happened? Is it possible that the miracles of the Yeshua stories happened when we usually do not see people healed today? What did Yeshua say about his identity (I’ve heard he never claimed to be Messiah)? What were Yeshua’s aims? Why is Yeshua important and why do we need a way to God?
More to come . . . To buy a copy of Yeshua in Context (to be released August 31) click here.