The Historical Christ Jesus of Nazareth Matters
7 October 2022
A friend asked me questions about the historical Jesus. Was he important? Is he still important? If so, why?
I’ve written much about Jesus over the years. My emphasis is often on the importance of revering Jesus as an example, the principal example, of sublime humanity or the mortal approach to Godhood. Scripture would extend from Jesus to us all of the same titles and roles. Most important among those is the title of Christ, which we receive in baptism, and the role of Atonement, in which Jesus invites us to participate.
Because of my emphasis on worship as emulation, sometimes people wonder whether I think the general idea of Christ might be sufficient, independent of an historical Jesus. As my friend put it, “How does Jesus the person matter to this?” And he presses farther, asking, “How does any particular one of us (God the Father even) influence us to love, forgive, collaborate, etc. in a way that the whole massive collective could not do anyhow without that influence?”
These are important questions because most Mormons, like most Christians, have strong feelings toward the historical Jesus. And those feelings arise, in large measure, from the influence of scripture that emphasizes his importance. The Book of Mormon even goes so far as to assert that “there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.”
So how do Mormons understand this? How could we explain the perspective that, as my friend put it, “the event of Jesus of Nazareth’s particular life and messianic atonement [is] ‘indispensable’ for all human divinization?” And could we explain this in a practical way – in contrast to any appeal to supernaturalism?
My initial answer to his question was in conversation. And there were two parts to the answer.
We Require Each Member of Christ
First, each of us matters individually and particularly, and not just generally or in the abstract. Like each specific person you love matters individually and particularly to you, the historical Jesus matters individually and particularly to those who knew and loved him specifically.
If we care only about the specific persons that matter to us, we’re being uncharitable. To the extent that we give up or lose hope in redeeming particular persons, we cultivate escapism. To the extent that our account of transfiguration and resurrection to immortality becomes merely an abstraction, it becomes a euphemism for death.
But most of us aspire to an eternal life that’s as real as light and as warm as love. And that requires all the individualities, particularities, and specificities of real life. That requires your real friends and family, as well as their real friends and family. And that requires the real historical Jesus.
The Gospel of Christ doesn’t require us to raise Jesus above all else that’s called “God.” And Jesus doesn’t ask for that. To the contrary, the scriptures associate such behavior with Satan.
Instead, as they do consistently with all roles, scriptures extend from Jesus to us each the same role of individual necessity. If there’s even one lost sheep, Jesus encourages us to go after him. If there’s even one lost soul, how great will be our joy after we help her return. We without them, and they without us, cannot be made perfect.
Recall the Book of Mormon assertion that none can be saved except by the name of “Jesus Christ” specifically. There’s more. The Book of Mormon also encourages us each, individually, to take on the name of “Christ” – the title without the name “Jesus.” And it does so within another sermon that asserts, more generally in reference to “Christ,” that “there shall be no other name given nor any other way or means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.”
We can, of course, interpret these passages of scriptures in various ways. The interpretation that makes the most sense to my mind and feels the best in my heart is that which recognizes, yet again, an intentional scriptural extension of the titles and roles of Christ from Jesus to us. As the heaven to which we aspire cannot come fully into being without Jesus individually, so it cannot come fully into being without everyone else individually. Anything less would be psychosocially insufficient, and a call to eternal action.
The Experiential Atonement
The second part of my answer to my friend’s question appealed to a speculative relationship between common Christology and the trajectory of emerging technology.
Many Christians, Mormon and otherwise, understand the historical Jesus to have engaged in some kind of transcendent work, accompanied by suffering, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many call this “the Atonement,” understanding it to be of great importance to the salvation of humanity. And many understand Jesus to have experienced our sorrows and our sufferings as part of his experience.
What really happened historically? Of course I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And even if I had been, I couldn’t know any better than the disciples who, according to the Biblical account, fell asleep while Jesus suffered.
But that has never stopped me from enjoying speculation. And in this case, the speculation may even have beneficial practical consequence. So let’s speculate.
As I’ve suggested before, the trajectory of emerging technology seems to suggest that superhumans and their computers will become indistinguishable. If we live in a computed world, the computer is probably indistinguishable from the engineer, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” So they would share an anatomy. And, by extension, they could share experience – “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”
As I imagine superhuman computer-engineers, to whatever extent I might be barely capable of imagining such vast minds, they could be experientially connected with the worlds that they create. The connection could be so intimate that they could suffer each pain and enjoy each pleasure of each being in each world within their computational reach. And maybe human bodies and minds within their worlds could be transformed, even transfigured as the Bible says of Jesus, and become capable of sharing in that experiential connection with far broader and deeper awareness.
If superhumanity could do this, why would they? An experiential connection between creator and created could serve at least a couple purposes. First, it could provide the creator with a perpetual opportunity to learn and grow through infinitely diverse rich experiences. And second, it could serve as an ethical limit on the risks to which a creator would be willing to expose a creation, knowing that she would suffer all of the consequences of those risks with her creatures.
The only thing I know for sure is that my speculations are wrong to some extent. But they provoke recognition of strong feelings that I associate with the importance of individuals and the details of their experiences. When I make my feeble attempt to imagine the greatest of superhuman minds, not only in power but also in the virtues that I revere, I’m moved to imagine that which could and would concern itself deeply with personal specificities.
That, in turn, influences me. Worshipping through emulation, I aim to become like the God that I imagine – like the Christ that Jesus exemplifies in my understanding. Encouraged by my imagination of their unique compassion for me individually, I reach out more thoughtfully and carefully, and thereby effectively, to others around me. And through such effort, I actually become increasingly better at the task – actually more compassionate, maybe even eventually approximating how I now imagine God.
Historical Jesus and Scriptural Jesus
I suppose that I should acknowledge again, for the sake of my skeptic friends, that we don’t really know much about an historical Jesus. There was even a time when it was fashionable among academics to doubt that a historical Jesus ever existed. That has subsided considerably, with most scholars now consenting that Jesus of Nazareth was probably a real person.
How well do the scriptures present the historical Jesus? What about all of those miracles? I can’t answer that for you. Again, I wasn’t there.
That’s an ambiguity that I’m comfortable with. And it’s not to say that I don’t care about how well scriptures present the historical Jesus. I do care, for all the reasons I mention above. But I’m okay with whatever we discover as our efforts at history and archeology progressively reveal more.
On the one hand, so to speak, the Matrix architect can do as she pleases. If she wishes to enable Jesus to perform miracles, she can do so within ultimately naturalistic mechanisms. Miracles are simply experiences that we cannot yet explain. Much that we experience and do in the modern world would be perceived, rightly, as miraculous to our ancestors.
On the other hand, ancient writers may have used miracles as symbols, or received and repeated stories, or even outright exaggerated or lied. And yet the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ would persist in the lives of those who live it, quite independent of any such discoveries about discrepancies between the historical and scriptural Jesus.
In any case, all of the following sentences are entirely and sincerely true. I care about and want to know the historical Jesus. I care about and seek to emulate the scriptural Jesus. And I expect to continue learning more about the similarities and differences between the two.
As our conversation shifted to writing, my friend offered a reflection of what he understood me to be describing. Here’s what he wrote:
“The capacity for such massive love is developed by choice under pressure. Not all of us have ‘thus far’ made the choices that the Christ Gods have. We have chosen to follow their paths to develop their capacities. We are aiming to become MORE by responding to their loving desires to make choices that we have not yet been willing to make – in all eternity so far. It takes One to know One so to speak. We desire to become more, to develop into beings that are reliably each other’s saviors, forgivers, helpers, pro-creators, lovers in this process. We all have shown this desire to become MORE through this Earth-Spirit World experiment. We don’t just want to be nice, satisfied Gods – we want to be Gods that continually increase in joyfulness like our Heavenly Parents claim to be doing. Among those within the sphere of their influence, we Earthlings trusted Them while others of our premortal family have not (yet) trusted them. We hope all of us (in this sphere or family) will come to trust them and rejoin the quest for more joy together.”
To that end, despite not yet (or ever) knowing every detail in any final way, the historical Christ Jesus of Nazareth matters at least as much as the general conception of Christ. You and I each matter at least as much as the general conception of people. Earth matters at least as much as the general conception of heaven. They without us, each of us, cannot be made perfect – whole and together in all the dynamic complexity of the only real Atonement, the practical Atonement.
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”