Christians Who Ignore the Real Jesus

Many American Christians see themselves as devout followers of the theological Jesus but don’t want to know much about the historical Jesus, the nonviolent radical who called on his followers to resist social injustice, writes Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

At one time in the study of Jesus from Nazareth, the Bible particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were our most fruitful sources. They are still basic to the search for the real Jesus, but the study has recently expanded into the surrounding context of his life and teachings.

For centuries, Christians had only a theological Jesus defined in creeds and confessions of faith. According to this tradition, Jesus was sent by God to die for the sins of the world with an eventual destiny to rule the world from the holy city of Jerusalem where he would sit on the throne of the great King David.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

However, in the Nineteenth Century, scholars began the search for the historical Jesus. That first search effectively ended when Albert Schweitzer wrote a book entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906 and translated into English in 1910. Schweitzer’s conclusion was clear: No historical Jesus can be found in the New Testament.

Thus, the issue of the Jesus of history lay dormant until the mid-1950s when under the leadership of Rudolph Bultmann and his students another search for the real Jesus was pursued for some 15 to 20 years. But Bultmann and his colleagues came to the same conclusion as Schweitzer: No historical Jesus could be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

Still, the subject would not go away and a big breakthrough occurred in the 1970s when scholars using sources other than the Bible began reconstructing the social and political realities of First Century Palestine, particularly the Zealot movement whose seeds were in Galilee, Jesus’s backyard.

The Zealot movement was dedicated to overthrowing the entire authority structure that controlled Palestine, including the Romans, all their retainers and enforcers, and the entire religious hierarchy. The Zealot movement was based in the peasant class, a majority of the people who lived in the Galilee in what scholars call “an advanced agrarian society.”

Life for most people in an advanced agrarian society was not a pretty picture, filled with inequality, poverty and despair for most. Ownership and control of land and farming was held by about 2 per cent of the population, a class of rich owners who lived in luxury in cities.

In Northern Palestine, the rich owners lived primarily in Sepphoris and Tiberius and seldom, if ever, visited the farms they owned. They controlled their land empires through a system of retainers and enforcers who extracted maximum wealth from the peasant workers.

Below the peasants on the socio-economic ladder were people who were considered unclean or degraded along with a sizeable population of expendables, primarily excess children of peasants who were turned out and left on their own.

Artisans were a separate class from peasants and also were considered below peasants in status. Joseph, the father of Jesus, was one such artisan. So, at best, Jesus and his family lived at a subsistence level. Opportunities for education were non-existent. This was the world of Jesus.

The great eye-opener for me was a book published in 1994 by New Testament scholar William Herzog II, who spent his scholarly career studying, teaching and writing about the parables of Jesus. The title of the book is Parables as Subversive Speech, with the subtitle, “Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.”

The book placed Jesus in the role of a brilliant but untrained teacher who was shaped by his commitment to God and to Jewish Old Testament law (Torah). His teaching tool was his parables through which he demanded justice. I have not read the parables in the same way since reading Herzog’s volume.

The Jesus parables that we have in the Gospels and the movement of the Zealots dovetail into a scathing denunciation of the economic, political, social and religious conditions of the day. But there was one huge difference between Jesus and the Zealots.  Zealots were committed to overthrowing by violence. Jesus was calling for revolution through non-violent justice. Nearly every Zealot man carried a large hidden knife and was ready to use it. Jesus told Zealots “Put up your sword.”

Putting together the puzzle pieces of an historical Jesus is not complete. It is a work still in process. But enough has been done to show that there was a Jesus of history who vigorously attacked the religious, economic, social and political powers of his day in the name of justice.

The tragedy is that most people in the pews are completely unaware of the historical Jesus and its implications for what it means to be a Christian and to be a follower of Jesus. Why are they ignorant of this information? Their pastors have not told them.

Why have they not told them? I can think of at last three reasons. First, many American churches are led by untrained, poorly educated clergy who simply don’t know the facts. Second, even those with quality seminary training have neglected their responsibility to continue reading and studying.

Third, there are a huge number of clergy who know the truth about Jesus but are afraid to tell their congregations because the clergy are not willing to ask their parish members to become involved in the real world and its issues. They are fearful of being involved themselves in the justice issues of our own day and they are fearful of losing their jobs

Clergy are too comfortable with a sweet Jesus who waits to take people to heaven.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].              

19 comments for “Christians Who Ignore the Real Jesus

  1. November 12, 2014 at 09:42

    The Jesus that you make reflects yourself as you choose to be.
    If like Jesus you choose to only be as God is Being You – then you will put aside the persona and embrace the whole – which extends through you as your genuine presence and touches others in recognition and embrace of worth.
    The moneylenders in the template are not personages to hate. The illustration was not a political act but a profound teaching demonstration of one’s own device in consciousness working in secret that interjects itself into the currency of true appreciation and exchange so as to usurp it to a private agenda.
    Jesus ‘politics’ are to give witness to truth. Issues of social organization are a matter of honest willingness for communication – but such communication is denied while the template is ‘defiled’. Look therefore within THIS moment of your living to see the self-definitions that are giving rise to your perception and experience – for you are not created BY your experience though you can choose to believe this if you would prefer it to your Creator – Who is with you even now or you would not Be.
    The lie and the father of the lie is to be identified WITHIN and put behind you. That there are reflections and symbols of this in the world is to serve your uncovering and owning of your OWN. THIS you CAN repent of immediately ONCE you recognize it.
    Who knows not what he does is poor in Spirit – but is no less the inheritor of the Kingdom because one cannot truly disinherit truth. But on can attempt to assert and defend a partiality as if it were whole – at the expense of appreciation of wholeness.
    The relevance and resonance to your need is the ears and eyes you have. If you have no need of truth but to use its form to fuel or mask a private agenda, then you will have your experience and be found wanting. There IS no peace in conflict. Be vigilant against the illusion of power. God is not needing praise or belief – but while you withhold your blessing, you will feel deprived. God is the love that needs nothing but to share itself. Creation is an infinitely rich expression of sharing – seen as a wholeness of All in All. The world of perception is a structure of belief – nothing more – but not less. No one lacks faith – but what is it invested in?
    The real You is the point, and if Jesus, in any degree or aspect of what that can mean to you, serves the living sharing appreciation of Life’s Blessing – then be grateful for the synchronicity and be not embarrassed or inhibited in love’s presence as your own – strange as that may seem to a mind conditioned to judgement, coercion, fear and guilt. Conditioning can be recognized and changed by a shift of perspective.
    Jesus is the Idea of you embodied, for you to recognize and remember your Father – your Source and Foundation. But only as you are freely willing to accept. God is not coercive upon Creation and THAT is something Jesus embodies as a wayshower – not an idol. Nothing I write here has any authority over the freewilling discernment of YOUR heart’s choosing. Nothing anyone says or does has such authority – unless your word establishes it so. Why give power and worthship unto idols when you Are the Beloved Son in whom Creation Itself delights? To make idol of Jesus is to deny him in yourself while professing him through a mask darkly.

  2. Julian
    November 10, 2014 at 09:19

    The image of Jesus has also been nothing but a gigantic modern day, make-believe construct. Look at how Jesus is usually portrayed: Long, wavy brown hair, blue eyes, skin color akin to those typical to the Mediterranean, medium height, etc. In Short: something like an Italian hippy.
    Does anyone truly believe that the historical Jesus, if he ever existed, would’ve looked like that? People from that region of the world usually don’t look anything like that.

    It truly is shocking that the largest religious group in the USA (about 75% are Christian) knows so little about their own faith. Pew Research did a survey in 2010 and found that self-proclaimed Christians (evangelical Protestants, Catholics, mainline Protestants, etc.) could, at best, answer half of the 32 questions concerning religion correctly. If it’d been a school test, then they would’ve failed miserabely.
    Atheists/Agnostics, Jews and Mormons didn’t exactly pass with flying colors, but they did (on average) get 20 out of 32 right. So they would’ve passed the test. And Atheists/Agnostics aren’t even religious! I did the quiz on their site and passed with 11 out of 15 correct answers, despite being an Atheist, never having gone to church or having religious parents (they are on paper but really could’t give a flying f*** about religion). But I do read about religion, I have read the Bible as well as parts of the Koran and contemplate on it. I don’t reject religion because of ignorance, I reject it because I actually know what I’m talking about.

    This proves two things to me: One, intelligence and faith do not go hand in hand. The more intelligent an individual is, the less likely it is for them to belong to a religious group or believe in supernatural deities.
    Two, believing is not knowing. It is the polar oppposite. Peter Boghossian defined faith as “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence”. And many outspoken Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc.) have made similar points.

  3. toby
    November 9, 2014 at 07:17

    The message of Jesus is NOT in miracle births or walking from the dead, it is in WHO killed him and why.

    • November 9, 2014 at 13:22

      The people who were responsible for killing Jesus were the religious leaders, who happened to be Jewish, just like Jesus himself was Jewish and the people around him were mostly Jewish. He was a threat to the religious leaders and the power they had over the people, as I see it.

      I think Jesus would have trouble with the religious leaders of whatever the dominant religion was in the society in which he lived. Here in the USA he would have trouble with those in the Religious Right, who are mostly Christian, or loudly profess to be.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 9, 2014 at 19:56

      Fellows, the Romans executed Jesus.

      • Gregory Kruse
        November 9, 2014 at 21:07

        Only because the Jews didn’t have the legal standing to convict him or sentence him, that is if he ever did exist.

  4. Lutz Barz
    November 9, 2014 at 04:59

    true: no Mr Christ. Ever. A renaissance pope admitted as much alluding to the myth of the character ‘that had served the church so well over the centuries’. No wonder the church & adherents get confused esp around christmas [weihnachten in german meaning making the night holy without specifying who or what] which in the end is a combination of the roman saturnalia and nordic conflated myth & sympathetic magic.
    So be human to each other as we have always been [when in the mood].

  5. historicvs
    November 9, 2014 at 00:26

    Jesus was not a reformer or a champion of social justice. It is an mistake to project 21st century American political and social values onto 1st century Palestine. Jesus’ mission was to prepare his people for the end of times and the triumphant return of Yahweh, which he imagined was imminent. We know today that his allegedly great moral principles were not original with him, but were adaptations or paraphrases of contemporary Jewish thought. His unrealistic exhortations to “turn the other cheek”, to sell all one’s possessions and so on, clearly show his perspective that this world was about to pass away and practial strategies for daily living were no longer important.

    Whether or not he had the temerity to claim himself the flesh-and-blood son of the Almighty is irrelevant: he was wrong.

    Jesus lived in a haunted world controlled by invisible spirits, in which the concept of the individual as we know it today simply did not exist. His preoccupation was in commanding behaviors that would enlist the favor of such entities. He believed himself able to harness their power to heal the sick and raise the dead – things that we who live in a more sophisticated, science-based culture understand are impossibilities.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 9, 2014 at 00:43

      He believed himself able to harness their power to heal the sick and raise the dead – things that we who live in a more sophisticated, science-based culture understand are impossibilities.

      This is a thread about modern Christianity, not an outfit currently associated with “sophisticated, science-based culture”.

      From USA Today 2010:

      This fits with most Americans’ views: 92% say there is a God and 83% say this God answers prayers, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults May 1-2.

      I’m not to first to remark that if Jesus were to attempt to teach and practice his teachings in Fort Lauderdale, he’d first risk being being beaten and tazed by the local police, then he’d certainly face prosecution for attempting any version of the miracle of the fishes and the loaves.

      And skipping the ‘miracle’ part, even if he arranged for cans of sardines and day-old rolls to be trucked to the place where he was preaching, the Good Christians of the area would do whatever it takes to make him go stop. Fatally shot while resisting arrest has worked well in similar circumstances.

    • toby
      November 9, 2014 at 07:35

      Thank you for today’s Judea perspective.

      I don’t agree with you. While one must understand the context of His teachings, we have VERY different beliefs on their purpose and I find them every bit as relevant today as over 2000 years ago.

      What I find to be BS is those who hang on “revelations” that constantly preach of a second coming or total annihilation. Or that “chosen people” status.

      The USA through off the chains of religion running government and it had better stay that way.

      Jews killed Jesus…and would do it in a heartbeat AGAIN today.

      As far as I’m concerned, Judea (Talmudia) follows satan while Jesus has opened the door for us lowly 98% to understand GOD.

  6. E.A. Blair
    November 8, 2014 at 23:25

    “Ownership and control of land and farming was held by about 2 per cent of the population, a class of rich owners who lived in luxury in cities.”Oh…just like now.

  7. Zachary Smith
    November 8, 2014 at 23:17

    But there was one huge difference between Jesus and the Zealots. Zealots were committed to overthrowing by violence. Jesus was calling for revolution through non-violent justice.

    Everybody interested in the search for the ‘historical Jesus’ will make their personal deductions after considering the evidence available to them. It’s my opinion that the Zealots who followed Jesus mostly agreed with him. And what do I suppose he thought about the violent overthrow of the Romans? It’s my view that Jesus understood this was an impossible task for the Jews of his day.

    The author mentioned the wealthy Roman city of Sepphoris, but not that it was 3-4 miles from the village of Nazareth. Probably Joseph and his family lived in Nazareth precisely because of the building boom in Sepphoris which provided a small income for a person of his class.

    My point is that from an early age Jesus would have been thoroughly familiar with the reality of Roman power. Clearly any attempt to fight them would have been suicide, and the later Jewish revolts demonstrated this all too well.

    But the land he and all the other devout Jews believed was God’s hallowed ground was occupied by the hoards of powerful foreigners who coddled the wealthy Jewish collaborators who ground the devoted believers into abject poverty. How was it possible for this situation to exist?

    Their solution was that God was permitting this because of the way the faithful had strayed. If they would only ‘clean up their act’, then God would intervene and set matters right. This explains many of the teachings such as ‘turning the other cheek’ and deliberately becoming penniless – God must be convinced his devoted believers were worth reclaiming. And when God finally did step in, the vast military power of the Romans would obviously be rendered useless.

    Probably the last trip to Jerusalem was supposed to cap the campaign by Jesus. The event which caused his execution was the failed attempt to cleanse the Temple and return its operation to the way he understood God wanted it.

    Perhaps Judas became a betrayer out of frustration precisely because the venture failed, but that’s neither here nor there. In the gospels, reports of the final words of Jesus were not in agreement, but the version which seems most realistic to me comes from Matthew: ” My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    Jesus just didn’t understand what he had done wrong in his quest to get God’s help expel the Romans and to return justice for the downtrodden. Though his followers went on to use his death to establish a new religion (a Jewish sect called Christianity), Jesus did not accomplish what he’d set out to do – to reclaim his homeland from the Romans.


    Attempts at forcing God’s hand continue to this day. Well over a hundred years ago some rather fanatical Christians had an early hand in returning Jews to Palestine. The results of their efforts have been a total disaster for the region. Their modern spiritual kinfolk are maneuvering to set the stage for Armageddon. First build up the Christ-killing Jews, then gleefully watch as they get their just deserts.

    This continuing Christian desire for an Apocalypse also causes them to ignore the climate change which is destroying the only home we’ll ever have. By creating the conditions leading to chaotic and disastrous change, surely God’s hand will be forced! Then the Trump will blow, and those who precipitated the calamity will become the overlords and their designated evildoers will get what they deserve.

    Me? I doubt if God is likely to be impressed by self-serving suicidal behavior which turns Earth into a war-wracked wasteland of blackened rubble. Especially if the suiciders claim to have done it in His name.

    • November 9, 2014 at 01:27

      Actually according to Luke Jesus did have some words for those who would bring about Armageddon.

      It must needs be that trials and tribulations will come, but woe to those by whom they come. It would be better for such to have a great millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the sea … (Luke 17:1-2)

      I would guess that those words would apply regarding anyone wanting to bring about the supposed “Great Tribulation”.

      • toby
        November 9, 2014 at 07:41


        Way too many see profit (personal or monetary) from the “second coming” or total annihilation. Jesus warned of that falsity being used to deceive.

  8. JWalters
    November 8, 2014 at 21:43

    Thanks for this interesting article. In line with this analysis, the direct cause of the plotting to have Jesus crucified was his kicking the bankers out of the temple, according to the story.

    Leaving aside issues of spirituality, Jesus’ social status would probably have kept him out of the formal histories of the time. On the other hand, four books were written about him fairly soon after his death, plus a book about his disciples’ travels.

    November 8, 2014 at 20:51

    You’re arguing for a non-existant “historical” character, found only in that collection of fictional tales authored and written by man, themselves unknown and unidentifiable.
    Even there, your biblical hero is not all that admirable. Better go back and read with comprehension bub.
    You’re just spinning your wheels.

    • amnesia
      November 9, 2014 at 02:30

      Indeed, set up a strawman then proceed to demolish him- how utterly unfortunate that we spin our heads over a nonexistent entity, and an ideology or ideologies of control and oppression! To hell with this heavenish nonsense!

    • hammersmith
      November 17, 2014 at 20:11

      I am glad somebody said that.

      • hammersmith
        November 17, 2014 at 20:13

        my reply was to opperman

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