Jesus Nation

The never-ending American battle over how to think about Jesus.

Eighty percent of adult Americans say they are Christians, and 70 percent claim that Jesus is divine as well as human—not just the famous Jewish teacher who walked the Palestinian earth in the first century, not just the Christian equivalent of Mohammed or the Buddha (inspired men who founded or gave their names to new religions), but an actual divine-human being. Around the world and in the United States, many secularists shake their heads at the nutty American paradox of a modern industrial society saddled with a premodern religious sensibility.

Secularists are not alone in their head-shaking. Since the 18th century, especially in America, some ardent disciples of Jesus have opposed the “divine” Christ as the nefarious invention of priestcraft. Thomas Jefferson, enlightened defender of reason against superstition, tried to protect his wise-man Jesus against the “mystery-mongering” of the churches. Before he died in 1826, Jefferson said the future belonged to the Unitarians; Americans would dispense with the Trinity as well as the divinity of Christ.

That was one of Jefferson’s less prescient moments. Instead we have witnessed a 200-year standoff between two groups of Jesus lovers: on one side, the boosters of Jesus the human philosopher, prophet, healer, or social reformer; on the other, the believers in Jesus the divine-human Son of God, who combines his human gifts with the sacred roles of Messiah, redeemer, apocalyptic judge, and miracle worker.

In the 1830s the nimble Ralph Waldo Emerson devised an ingenious strategy for bridging the gap between the two sides. Yes, Jesus could be called divine as well as human, but so, in principle, could anyone. Stop worshipping Christ as supernatural, as grander by definition than everyone else. Start believing him when he says, in answer to the Pharisees’ query about “when the kingdom of God should come,” that it’s already here: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation … the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). That’s exactly what Jesus meant, argued Emerson, when he told his followers to emulate “little children,” those who had not yet learned the invidious adult distinction between humanity and divinity.

Emerson’s Jesus modeled revolution in society as well as self. Break free, he urged, from all tired institutions and worn-out habits of mind. He had in mind a deeper revolution than any organized political or reform movement could effect. Reformers, Emerson insisted, just wanted to impose a new conformity. “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Jesus revealed himself as the ultimate nonconformist. Better than anyone before him, thought Emerson, Jesus grasped that “God must be sought within, not without.”

The Jeffersonian beat goes on today in James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity, and the Emersonian pulse animates much of Garry Wills’ What Jesus Meant. These two books disagree profoundly about how to approach Jesus, demonstrating that in America, opinion about Christ cannot be summed up as liberal versus conservative. Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Wills, a renowned political and cultural critic, both qualify as liberals. Tabor typifies the long-standing quest by some liberal Christians to rescue “the historical Jesus” from the supernatural destiny allegedly imposed on him by the Apostle Paul and the rest of the early church. Wills rejects the historical-Jesus campaign, which in his view diverts attention from the Gospel Jesus. He joins Emerson in seeing Christ as the supreme radical whose message is always tempered or compromised by the ecclesiastical bodies that claim allegiance to him.

Tabor blares a loud trumpet to announce his appeal for the “original version of Christianity, long lost and forgotten,” in which Jesus was allegedly satisfied to remain a human prophet, akin to Mohammed. In the era of Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code, Jesus revisionism inevitably beckons as blockbuster terrain. “The impact and implications of this book are far-reaching and potentially revolutionary,” Tabor notes in his preface. Unlike Brown’s fictional story, which speculates that Jesus survived the crucifixion to marry Mary Magdalene and produce the Merovingian Dynasty in France, Tabor’s entire project depends on Jesus having died at the crucifixion and left his brother James in charge of building up his “Messianic movement” in Jerusalem. Tabor calls his history “hidden” because the supposed “dynasty” formed by James and his other brothers was covered up by the later church, which preferred a heavenly Christ to a human Messianic leader. Tabor’s “royal family” refers to the humble carpenter’s alleged line of descent from the Jewish King David, as sketched in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.

According to Tabor, Jesus realized in his youth that he and his brothers belonged to “the royal line” and understood “the Messianic implications of this heritage.” They also knew, says Tabor, that the kingdom predicted by Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other prophets meant not a kingdom in heaven, but an earthly “revolution, a complete overthrow of the political, social, and economic status quo.” Before he died, Tabor contends, “Jesus set up a provisional government with twelve regional officials, one over each of the twelve tribes or districts of Israel.” He selected his brother James as “the head of this fledgling government” and his other brothers Jude, Simon, and Joseph (also called Matthew) as additional members of the “Twelve.”

The reasoning and evidence behind these claims is controversial, to say the least. Other scholars engaged in the historical-Jesus quest dispute Tabor’s view that Christ’s kingdom amounted to a new kind of “government” and believe that the Davidic “royal” line attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is a literary device employed to express the religious truth—not the biographical fact—of his Messianic calling. Since Tabor rejects other New Testament stories as unhistorical—the virgin birth and the Resurrection, for starters—it’s not clear why he maintains such confidence in the historical truth of others, such as Luke’s tale that Jesus (like King David) was born in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth.

Ultimately Tabor leaves the reader confused about whether he thinks the Jesus dynasty is a historical fact or merely an intriguing conjecture. The textual evidence is so scanty, he implies, that one must supplement it with archaeology. The book features entertaining accounts of several digs and discoveries, including the tantalizing find in 2002 of an ossuary inscribed “James, the Brother of Jesus.” Though the James ossuary may easily belong to another family (the names were exceedingly common), and though “the Brother of Jesus” part of the inscription may have been added later, Tabor is transfixed by this and other episodes in his never-ending quest for artifacts and bodily remains. But the archaeology contributes only colorful interludes; it does nothing to ground the idea of the Jesus dynasty.

Tabor seems stuck in an endless loop, squinting across the sands of time as much as the terrain of Galilee and Judea, holding out for some imagined “real” contact with the historical Jesus—contact that the Gospels themselves, written long after his death by people who believed in him but hadn’t known him, can never provide. But if Tabor’s shovel ever clinks on the ultimate tomb—that of Jesus himself—will he have landed on the real Jesus?

Garry Wills would answer that question firmly in the negative. We can’t get close to the historical Jesus, he argues in What Jesus Meant. Even the discovery of his DNA in an ancient ossuary—Tabor’s supreme fantasy—would leave us distant from him. The only access to the real Jesus is by faith, not by works of digging through layers of earth or texts. Archaeology and literary sifting take us further away from him whenever they search for some original Jesus of Nazareth who had not yet become the worshipped Christ. “The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith,” Wills writes. “If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say.”

It would be easy to miss the point of Wills’ brief, gemlike volume by seeing it as a traditionalist reaffirmation of Christ’s “divinity” in the face of human-Jesus proponents such as Tabor. In fact Wills follows Emerson’s model of protecting the divine-human Jesus against the corrupting embrace of the legalistic, formalist churches. The biggest threat to knowing the real Christ comes not from the historical-Jesus seekers but from institutions that claim control over him. Invariably those holy bodies distort his meanings, using the power of his image to aggrandize themselves.

Wills shares Emerson’s view that Jesus dispensed with “religion” altogether, since its rules and observances got in the way of doing his Father’s will. Jesus rejected “politics” too, preaching a radicalism that challenged the stultifying conformities imposed by all movements for a new society. Jesus taught the radicalism of sacrificial love, not that of social “change.” The poor, the sick, the abused you have always with you, he said, and you must always love them as you say you love me. If you despise them, you hate me, too.

As much as Jefferson and Emerson, Wills wants to protect Jesus from the priests, bishops, and popes who have claimed privileged access to him. Where he departs from Jefferson and Emerson, as well as from Tabor, is in reasserting the power of sin to subvert our best efforts to follow Jesus. It’s not just the churches that keep crucifying Christ. Believers do, too. Contrary to Emerson’s notion of an open-ended human “divinity,” Wills believes it is in the fallen nature of human beings to sin. Judas, according to Wills, taught this lesson powerfully. “I have sinned in turning over this innocent man” (Matthew 27:4). That “act of contrition,” writes Wills, “redeems him, makes him a kind of comrade for all of us who have betrayed Jesus. He is our patron. Saint Judas.” Wills thus anticipates the recent flurry of interest in the noncanonical Gospel of Judas. But rather than seeing Judas as a hero wrongly blamed for betraying Jesus, Wills takes Judas as a sinner who repents for what he himself considers an act of betrayal.

What Jesus Meant, one of Wills’ most personal books, features several memorable reflections on Gospel passages, all of them his own beautiful translations from the Greek. In his meditation on the atonement, Wills suggests taking the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross as the commiseration of a loving Creator, who chooses to suffer alongside foundering human creatures. An experience with his young son brought home to Wills the wisdom of this viewpoint. A nun at school had told his son that all sinners would end up in hell. Naturally he experienced a gruesome nightmare and asked his father, “Am I going to hell?” “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature,” Wills writes, “but I instantly answered what any father would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.’ “