This man lived just 33 years, spent most of it living in a small town in the Middle East, and only leaving his country once, when he was a young baby. He travelled the roads back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem, a distance of only about 140 kilometres, for three years as an itinerant preacher. He was followed by thousands of people who responded to his stories and personality, until he was arrested, tried and executed by the Roman authorities, at which point even his closest friends deserted him.
Thousands, perhaps millions of people throughout history lived a life like that, transient fame and popularity, a shooting star of activity that quickly burned out and was forgotten. But this man was not forgotten. In fact, we date our own lives in relation to his, as does most of the world. Everything in history is either before him, or since him. His followers turned the world upside down, as some of his opponents said, and his life and teachings became the foundation of the world we know.
It is only in the last 200 years that “civilisation” has moved away from identifying themselves with him and his message, after almost 2,000 years of being shaped by his influence. It was his words that gave people the idea that each person matters, individually respected and with dignity. His followers have been co-opted by ambitious and violent men at times, Christianity became, too often, Christendom, a political system that built world empires and waged war in the face of his explicit teaching that his kingdom was not of this world at all.
But other followers brought education, healthcare, social revolutions that emphasised the dignity and worth of the individual, civil and human rights blossomed where he was the inspiration. The world, in many ways, has taken his example, but rejected his person, just as his teaching of love and reconciliation resulted in his judicial murder. That is the way with a fallen world.
So, does it matter that we know the truth about Jesus of Nazareth? Do we need to understand where our ideas about him come from, and why this young man, with such a fleeting presence in the Middle East two thousand years ago, has had such an incredible effect on our lives, whether we believe he was who he said he was, or not?
I believe it does, and that we will not understand our own times and the choices we face, unless we have a clear and factual understanding of him. This is not important only for Christians: as an historian, I see the way in which his life and teaching has been twisted and used to justify truly awful actions and behaviours. This man has had a greater influence on the world and its story than any other individual ever, and few would argue against that claim.
If people reject the claims made about him, they can only do so honestly if they know the facts, the history and not the myths. One of the great tragedies of our time is that too many citizens know too little about the past, their own and that of the societies in which we live. Looking for answers to current social and political issues, there is a tendency to ignore past lessons learned, past answers found, and all out of ignorance of the fact that there is nothing new under the Sun.
If we persist in believing that only our generation can understand things as they are, only we are competent to judge the ways of this world, then we are denying ourselves the wisdom and insights of so many generations that came before us, lived on this planet, and faced the same questions and challenges that we do. We have, in the process of remaining ignorant of the past, assumed too much, dismissed too much of the realities of living. Based on ignorance, and, more dangerously, based on a profound misunderstanding of things, we have turned our backs on what we think we know about things, including on the facts about Jesus of Nazareth, and ploughed on blindly, thinking that we see.
I am a Christian and an historian, but these articles are not aimed to preach or convert anyone: that is not in my power. But they are designed to give those who want to read them the opportunity to think and decide on the past free of misconceptions and inaccurate information. If you choose to reject the implications, that’s up to you. If you’d rather not read them, because of their subject or their author, that is up to you, of course. My aim, which is the aim of all historians, is to set the record before you, providing the evidence, the historical events, which you can consider for yourself. If there is an argument against anything here, let me know and let’s discuss it. You are as free to do so as I. But let’s unmask the myth understandings.