This week I have been revisiting my readings on the historical existence of Jesus. Several times I have felt my mind ache with the debate. I'd be on the verge of accepting the contentions of Christian scholars, only to have the deniers reiterate, but Philo, and my headache would flare again.
But when I brought myself into relationship with this issue, I immediately made sense of it. First, I began asking myself why few of the articles I was reading discussed the real people who lived in the years following Jesus' death and who were responsible for the initial growth of Christianity. Once I began wondering about them, and imagining myself in their company, I saw that they would not have been the kind of people to create a highly sophisticated mythical figure to anchor their radical political and social views into a religious force. Certainly, over the decades to come, elements were no doubt added to the story, allegories that supported people in expressing how they interpreted Jesus. But saying those original Christians invented Jesus and tricked everyone else into believing he existed? Even if they'd done so overtly, as an heroic figure in a play, it is beyond what I've personally experienced of uneducated people, let alone entire communities. If this did happen, where are the early debates over Jesus' reality, alongside the debates about almost everything else related to him? And why on earth would highly devout Jews, who disliked all things pagan, draw from elements of pagan religions to create a mythic hero?
Secondly, I thought about a radical religious preacher of my own era, Brian Tamaki. He he stirs up quite a bit of controversy here, and I'd say at least half the population knows about him. But lets imagine there's a disaster in New Zealand, our society collapses, and most of our records are lost. We have a few pieces remaining - some memoirs, fictional books, council records, political commentaries, even some opinion pieces from churches which rival him. None of them mention Brian Tamaki - but why would they? Even if certain writers should have, their contempt for their subject would lead to them remaining silent. (Politicians and opinionists do this all the time.) There are no remaining newspapers, so all news is by word of mouth. Even as brief a time as ten years after Tamaki's death, stories about him would be vague. Memories would change as people layered them with later thoughts and opinions. Myths might begin to grow up - the sort of thing that oral stories naturally do, when people take their subject to heart and adapt it to their own cultural context.
So did Brian Tamaki not exist? Was he invented by his followers? I can tell you that he was real. But why would you believe me, since I'm avowing his existence? Only if I doubted it, but found evidence on paper, would you concede I was a reliable source.
In this way, I was finally able to conclude to my own satisfaction that Jesus did actually exist, and that his followers treasured his memory for reasons genuinely and vitally important to them.
Imagine if we allowed our children to learn deeply in this way. Imagine if we helped them to create an empathic relationship with their subjects, rather than just receiving facts handed to them by a teacher.
And imagine if we ourselves learned in this way. What I took most strongly from this delving into early Christianity was a beautiful, real sense of love. People loved Jesus. They loved being a community which came together to talk about him, and to support each other in developing his ideas and improving their lives. Never mind the politics that ultimately followed - such love was there, right at the beginning.
My reading gave me all the facts, for sure. But empathy gave me access to the heart of the matter, and so my education became real.