The real Jesus?

An eminent historian’s surprising defence of Christ the miracle worker
The Real Jesus?
Photograph by by Carlo Dolci/ Getty Images

You can take Paul Johnson’s word for it. In one persona, the 81-year-old Englishman is a right-wing journalistic gadfly with an acid tongue and the inclination to use it, once dismissing Bill and Hillary Clinton as locked in “a dynastic marriage of ambitious swine.” In what amounts to an entirely different avatar, one that expresses the better angels of his nature, Johnson is a distinguished (and calmly judicious) historian, the author of well-regarded works on topics ranging from Napoleon to the origins of modernity.

So there’s no reason to doubt him when he claims there are more than 100,000 biographies of Jesus Christ in English alone, including a good 100 written in just the last decade. It’s a staggering number, but hardly beyond belief for the single most influential figure in human history. And you can also take Johnson’s word for why he has added to that count with Jesus: A Biography From a Believer—every generation deserves its own portrait, which here emerges as surprisingly modern. What you cannot do, however, is accept his book as a work of historical scholarship.

That is in spite of the fact Jesus is a lovely little book, as beautifully written as any of Johnson’s histories, subtle and insightful on what the New Testament aims to tell us about Jesus Christ. But it isn’t historical writing, at least not by the standards of those—skeptic and believer alike—who abide by the rules of the professional historian’s craft. In a nutshell: human events have human or natural agency (miracles are not, cannot be, explanations); time moves in only one direction (seemingly successful predictions—of betrayal, death and resurrection—are much more likely to be the result of retroactive insertion into accounts than of divine foreknowledge); outsiders’ statements or random documents (a name on a tax roll, for instance) are more coolly informative than followers’ claims.

In the case of the historical Jesus, that evidence simply doesn’t exist. Johnson, like C.S. Lewis and many others before him, anchors his belief in the Gospels’ historical accuracy in the level of realistic detail, the seemingly random human touches, in their accounts—like the description of Christ writing in the dust before responding to Pharisees who had asked him if they should stone an adulterous woman (John 8: 6). “I don’t think that kind of detail simply accrues to a story,” says Johnson in an interview. “It’s so striking, so vivid, that I don’t believe it could have been invented.” More cautious historians, even those who accept the authenticity of that particular passage (many do not), don’t agree: they are well aware how stories grow more enthralling in the telling, and do not find such touches as “strangely, almost mysteriously, convincing” as Johnson does. As he himself points out, the Gospels are “literary as well as historical and spiritual documents.”

So here, then, is where the so-called Jesus Wars—the endless debate over just who the historical Jesus was and what he taught—have arrived, at a point that may mark the effective end of them. For the past few decades, the great wave of scholarly inquiry into the historical Jesus, launched with such optimism over a century ago, has kept slamming onto the same rocky shore. There is sufficient third-party evidence, primarily brief references by Roman observers, to convince virtually any historian that Jesus lived, preached, angered the powers that be, and was crucified for it, probably in 30 CE. But that’s all there is.

Everything else comes from within the faith tradition: the 27 books of the New Testament and an equal number of so-called apocryphal works, writings not included among the accepted Christian texts when they were finally hammered out in the fourth and fifth centuries. Just as early Christians pulled works they found unacceptable out of authorized Scripture, the Four Gospels are individually selective, John openly so, concluding with a laconic, “There are also many other things which Jesus did.” Together, the Gospels, in Johnson’s own words, are “mutually reinforcing and correcting.” And they pursue a forthright agenda: detailing the transformation of Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Christ, son of God. For most historians, the Evangelists offer no answers to the burning questions: what did Jesus believe about himself? What did he say and do as opposed to what others said about him?

Given the dearth of hard outside historical evidence about the man himself, scholars have moved into exploring the context of Christ’s life. They have reconstructed the society and religious ferment of first-century Palestine with an eye to exploring what kind of living marginalized peasants like Jesus, his family and friends, could have eked out, and what they would have been raised to believe, pray and proclaim. The work has proved fertile in enlarging our picture of the era, but it has also marked a tacit abandonment by mainstream scholarship of the possibility of more purely biographical advances.

But not abandoned by everyone: if Jesus, written by an eminent historian untroubled by an absence of third-party historical evidence, occupies one pole of that debate, the other is held by the no less ahistorical works—“wild stories without any evidence,” Johnson calls them—of a host of alt-Jesus authors. Their versions run from a Jesus married to Mary Magdalene (an idea generally associated with Dan Brown, but now pretty much an article of faith among all varieties of unorthodox Jesus writers) to a Jesus spirited from the cross before his death (Michael Baigent) to a Jesus who never lived at all (Tom Harpur). The overarching theme they hold in common is that Scripture—as read by the faithful—is not to be trusted, but that hidden between the lines, obscured by edits and omissions, is the real story. The truth is out there.

The Real Jesus?
Photograph by by Hugo van der Goes/Getty Images

For the faithful, though, the Gospels offer more than enough information. “There’s a library of books out there you could spend your life reading to one conclusion, and then change your mind,” Johnson says with a laugh. “The scholarly apparatus is far less important than the message.” Besides, as the ancient phrase “gospel truth” indicates, the words of the Evangelists pose no problem of trust whatsoever for believers. They certainly don’t for Johnson. Despite the signals given off by his subtitle, which can be read less as a declaration of faith than as a warning this book is not like his other histories, Johnson is “prepared to defend all my assertions, if challenged, by documentation.” To read Jesus is to realize that documentation can only be Christian tradition about the Gospels, which, however ancient, does not date back to the first century, and the Gospels themselves, buttressed at key points by the Epistles of St. Paul. Instead of the paucity of evidence bemoaned by most historians, Johnson has an abundance. And he’s determined to use it to rescue the true story of Jesus from contemporaries who have misread it.

Although tradition receives a few Johnsonian twists—he accepts the author of the Gospel of John as the apostle of the same name, but not the author of the Gospel of Matthew—he reads the writings themselves as gospel truth. They were written within “a generation or two” of Christ’s death, Johnson argues, in contrast to the generally accepted evidence for many other figures of the ancient world, taken from accounts that are “often very sketchy, and often written long after the people in them lived.” Moreover, the Gospels, he writes matter-of-factly, “are based primarily on the memories of Jesus’s mother, Mary,” and, to a lesser extent, the recollections of St. Peter (via his disciple Mark) and St. John.

Rooting events in Mary’s testimony, which most historians would be hesitant to do, is based more on first principles than any definite tradition. In Johnson’s logical deduction, only Mary was present at some key events, such as when the Angel Gabriel told her she was to bear the son of God, so only Mary could have told the Evangelist Luke what transpired. The miracles, from the healings that many commentators have tried to pass off as psychological, to raising Lazarus from the dead, he takes exactly as given; angels and demons (especially the latter) play significant roles in the story.

Johnson, and Jesus, gain enormously from this ahistorical approach. Free from scholarly obsessions large and small—which Gospel was written first, say, or what socio-political point the author of Mark was trying to make with the strange story of the Gadarene swine—Johnson can be almost pointillist in his depiction of Jesus. He demonstrates how the parables not only illuminate moral points in an everyday manner for an uneducated audience, but leave in their wake endless questions for Christ’s hearers to debate.

Johnson discusses Jesus’s approachability, an open personality rarely found in the writings of antiquity, and—an element so rare as to be rightly described by Johnson as “unique in the literature of the ancient world”—Jesus’s love of children. They are a constant in the Gospels, brought to him for blessing by their mothers, sitting by him as he preached, and the beneficiaries of a surprisingly large proportion of his miraculous cures. Often reluctant to reveal his power, Christ always acted whenever a distraught parent begged him to help a dying or suffering child. “He preached,” Johnson notes, “not only ‘Feed my sheep,’ but also, markedly, ‘Feed my lambs.’ ”

So too emerges a Jesus unusually aware of, and attuned to, women, even—or perhaps especially—those marginalized by birth or social stigma. He talks at length to the Samaritan woman at the well, and to the pagan Canaanite crying for her daughter’s life; he clearly found the sins of the adulterous woman no more repugnant than the self-righteousness of those who would judge her. And there were always women with important roles in Jesus’s entourage, most notably his mother and Mary Magdalene, the first human to see the risen Christ. It’s enough to prompt Johnson, an orthodox Roman Catholic, to allow that while there is nothing in the New Testament incompatible with an all-male priesthood, “equally there is nothing in Jesus’s teaching which rules out women priests.”

Johnson’s Christ is both traditional and contemporary, straightforward and paradoxical. Far from being in the lineage of prophets to the Israelites, Jesus was a “universalist” who welcomed everyone to the fold. “People keep claiming Paul was the universalist,” Johnson complains, “the one who switched the message from the Jews to the Gentiles, but before him Jesus was open to Romans, Samaritans, Canaanites.” And although Christ taught that we were here to prepare ourselves for the next world, he did so in a way that has made us better people in this one. In fact, Johnson says, “all the really good things we believe in the modern world—equality of individuals, care for the powerless, even respect for nature—can be traced directly to his teachings.”

It’s not, of course, a portrait a historian would or could paint, but it is an appealing one. (That attraction is aided by the author’s stress on the loving saviour, not the apocalyptic Jesus who utters the New Testament’s truly terrifying statements about eternal life and death. It is Christ, after all, who promises to separate humanity into sheep and goats, casting the latter into hellfire on Judgment Day.) It’s an appeal that’s liable to reach, in its human dimension, not just traditional believers but many of Jesus’s secular admirers too. And for both groups it will be a welcome counterpoint to some of the strange pathways recent writers have followed.

Even those focused on Jesus’s essential Jewishness by no means agree on what kind of Jew he was. Almost 20 years ago the American Catholic expert John Dominic Crossan could count in recent books seven distinct varieties, ranging from political revolutionary to charismatic seer; more have emerged since. In 2008, Canadian Rex Weyler described a “radical, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish Jesus” in The Jesus Sayings, a man who made no divine claims, required no supernatural beliefs from his audience, and demanded action in the here and now. York University professor Barrie Wilson saw a Jewish rabbi essentially hijacked by “Christifiers” like St. Paul, in How Jesus Became Christian (2008).

Those departures from traditional Christianity are mild in comparison with the radical wing of Jesus commentators. Tom Harpur, having contrasted the scant proofs of Christ’s life with the abundant parallels between Christianity and other ancient faiths, concluded in his bestseller The Pagan Christ (2004) that Jesus was a mythological and not an actual person. Harpur shows how, among many other similarities with Jesus, the Egyptian god Horus had a miraculous birth (heralded by a star in the east), 12 followers, cast out demons and healed the sick, died and rose again. Christian apologists, viewing such motifs as “foreshadowings” of the story of the true God, have acknowledged as much since ancient times, but Harpur goes on to argue that early Christians ignorantly took this myth as literally true and attached it to Jesus of Nazareth. And then embarked on a campaign of “forgery and other fraud, book burning, character assassination, and murder itself” that successfully destroyed the evidence of Christianity’s pagan origins.

Something like that, judging by the title—little else is known about it—should be close to the approach of Philip Pullman’s forthcoming novel. The author of The Golden Compass, now as famous for being a militant atheist as he is for being a brilliant writer for children, will release The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ next month. Pullman evidently has no problem with Jesus’s reality, but he does think the Christifiers twisted a great moral authority into a supernatural figure: “St. Paul was a literary and imaginative genius of the first order who has probably had more influence on the history of the world than any other human being, Jesus certainly included.” In case that might be taken as approval, Pullman added, “I believe this is a pity.’’

Then there’s Michael Baigent who, in The Jesus Papers (2006), was convinced Christ faked his death on the cross and escaped to live in Egypt. For a man who believes the Gospels are engaged in a massive cover-up, Baigent bases most of his case on a single word in Mark’s Gospel. The Greek language distinguishes between the words for “living body” and “corpse,” unlike Latin and English where “body” can do for either. When Joseph of Arimathea comes to Pontius Pilate, according to Mark, to ask for Jesus’s body, the word he uses is soma, “the living body.”

A co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), Baigent is most famous for being the first to popularize an idea that Dan Brown later spun into the The Da Vinci Code, and into sales of more than 80 million copies: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife. An entire warehouse of tomes has picked up on that concept, with a new Canadian entry on the way. Barrie Wilson and Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, who three years ago claimed to have found Christ’s tomb, have co-authored The Lost Gospel: Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene, Bride of God, for September release.

According to publisher HarperCollins, the bombshell revelations come from a manuscript at least 1,600 years old, and possibly dating to the time of Jesus. It is purported to be the first solid written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that she was not Jewish, and that there was a plot to abduct Mary and murder Jesus and their children. And where is this manuscript, written by an anonymous monk? Lying forgotten in plain sight in the British Museum, a claim that, on the face of it, scholars would find less believable than turning water into wine.

Given such alternative portraits of Christ, Jesus: A Biography From a Believer—angels, demons, miracles and all—may not be history, but it’s a model of sober scholarship.