“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the
disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you
may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you
may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
This scripture passage, I think, contains a hint: What you need to know about Jesus is in
the Gospels. If you find them or
what the Church says about them unsatisfying or in need of much supplement in
order to sufficiently understand or appreciate Him, it is a probably sign that
you are chafing under His yoke, and that you are itching to throw it off altogether. Your newly-found “background” and
“context” for Jesus will color Him, until He will fade away and disappear.
Lew Wallace once commented on writing his 1880 novel, Ben-Hur:
I first determined to withhold the
reappearance of the Savior until the last hour. I would have him always on the point of coming, that His
appearance might be looked for, to-day just over the hills, to-morrow at the
summit, with the hosts looking for him, tearfully yearning for his presence. My next resolve was that He should not
actually figure in any scene, and my only violation of this was when the cup of
water was given to Ben Hur at Nazareth.
A third purpose was to have every word which he supposedly uttered, the
exact words of sainted biographers.
Why was he so wary about portraying Jesus? Because, as he explained, “The
Christian world would not tolerate a novel with Christ as its hero.” Such a world would not tolerate
endangering the sacred by shading it with profane colors. So he wrote a novel about the world
around Jesus, but left Jesus himself as the mysterious untouched center.
The Many Lost Lives of Jesus
But whether Wallace was right about the Christian world of
the time is more difficult to say.
In a sense, this had already been done to wide acclaim by Ernest Renan
in his 1863 sentimentalized Life of Jesus,
although Renan and most of his readers would not have recognized it as fiction
but simply as a colorful retelling of the Savior’s life.
As Albert Schweitzer wrote about Renan in The Quest for
the Historical Jesus:
He laid the problem which had
hitherto occupied only theologians before the whole cultured world. And not as
a problem, but as a question of which he, by means of his historical science
and aesthetic power of reviving the past, could provide a solution. He offered
his readers a Jesus who was alive, whom he, with his artistic imagination, had
met under the blue heaven of Galilee, and whose lineaments his inspired pencil
had seized. Men's attention was arrested, and they thought to see Jesus,
because Renan had the skill to make them see blue skies, seas of waving corn,
distant mountains, gleaming lilies, in a landscape with the Lake of Gennesareth
for its centre, and to hear with him in the whispering of the reeds the eternal
melody of the Sermon on the Mount.
He colored in the background that was not present in the
Gospel accounts, and thereby manipulated the foreground through romantically
In the same way, Jesus’ so-called “lost years” have been of
interest to heterodox writers, from as far back as the 3rd century
Gnostic creators of the infancy gospels.
Heterodox authors thought that Jesus’ early life was lost and that it
needed to be recovered again. They
suspected that the early Church Fathers, on their way to corrupting Jesus’ original
identity and message, has lost the accounts of Jesus’ early life on purpose
because they did not fit with the system they were setting up. Plainly speaking, they established a
counter-Gospel exegesis that explained through added context what the real
meaning of Jesus’ life wasand, not surprisingly, it was the inverse of what
the Gospel said. In this telling,
the outward meaningand the outward Churchbecame the antagonists (often the
Cosmic Satanic antagonists) to the supposed inner and real truth.
Ernest Renan’s concern for the loss, however, was also an
instance of a larger lossthe culture’s loss of Jesus himself, due to the
“higher criticism” of the Bible then in vogue, as well as the growth of
materialism and atheism at large.
It was because Jesus had been lost that a “quest for the historical
Jesus” to find him again seemed like such an important issue. To many, the traditional Gospels no
longer seemed to contain the largest truth. Perhaps that truth, they thought, was hidden in lost teachings
of Jesus or in the unreported portions of his life.
Some might press on to try to uncover historical facts about
Jesus and his times, but others decided to opt for a kind of direct revelation
from a spiritual plane that would transcend the merely grubbing researches of
historians, through connecting in an unmediated fashion with the spirits of the
ancient saints and contemporaries of Jesus, or with the font of all knowledge
In these renditions, Jesus was either simply nonexistent
(but was a myth or a convenient fiction), or he was a simple moral teacher, or
preacher of what the 19th century called “the social gospel.” Or he was a pious scribe, or a plain
good man, a sort of bourgeois Protestant.
Or, as appropriate for the 19th century, he was an
anti-clerical, working-class revolutionary who had tried to usher in a
socialist paradise, or he was a purveyor of occult, pantheistic,
universalistic, cosmic knowledge, an Oriental magician and mystic hierophant.
And he would have succeeded in his mission, if only those
pesky priestsduring his life and for centuries afterwardshad not buried the
truth about him and his message.
This is the source of the hermeneutic of suspicion that spawned the
early Gnostic revisioning of the Gospel, as well as Martin Luther’s picking and
choosing which books of the Bible he would keep as legitimate (because they did
nothing to question his own viewsso much for sola scriptura!). And there was the Enlightenment’s demotion of Jesus’s miracles, such as
Thomas Jefferson’s clipping out of the Gospels what his rationalistic
assumptions could not allow him to acceptas Jefferson explained:
My aim in that was to justify the
character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers which have
exposed him to the inference of being an imposter. For if we could believe that
he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the Charlatinisms which
his biographers fasten on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations
& theorisations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter
ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an
imposter. ... It is surely time
for men to think for themselves, and to throw off the authority of names so
artificially magnified. ... this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the
vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his
biographers matter of two distinct descriptions first a ground work of vulgar
ignorance of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications.
Intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms
and precepts of the purest morality, & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of
humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of
worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have
not been surpassed.
What inspires marvel here is Jefferson’s confidence that the
cutting asunder of the “real” and the “unreal” in the Gospels is obvious. In this confidence, he outshines even
the Jesus Seminar.
Scissors and Parasites
More marvelous, but not unusual, is his lingering attachment
to Jesus. I think of Jefferson’s
state of mind as in a volatile, intermediate state, which can be identified
over and over again through the last several centuries of crumbling Faith. It is a fragile and temporary state of
mind on the way from the collapse of belief into sheer unbelief. Briefly stated, if Jesus was not who
the Gospels say he was, then there is no reason to hang on to him. And, as evidenced in the
autobiographical “evolution” of freethinkers, he can finally be disposed of
entirely without a loss and with more integrity than lingering over him as
merely a “good man” or a sage.
There is no reason to take scissors to the Gospels, as Jefferson
did. Just throw the entire volume
away. As so many have ultimately
Instead, we find timorous souls who still cling, like
parasites, to the Gospels, trying to re-envision them and the character of
Jesusto tell the “real” story.
This has been the affliction of the past several centuries, and this has
blossomed here in the Land of the Free, where it seems to be assumed to be each
person’s prerogative to figure it all out by himself. The question “What would Jesus do?” unconsciously elides
into “What would I have liked Jesus to have done?” which can be at odds even
with what Jesus actually did, according to the Gospels (such as ordain women as
priests). Paradoxically, such
eccentric revisionings are often accompanied by the claims that they have the
supernatural authorityof Jesus.
Forget Old Covenant and New Covenant. They envision an Old Covenant, a New Covenant, and a Newest
Covenantas when, in the 12th century, Joachim of Fiore discerned
“three ages of the church,” presided over by the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit, and in that of the Holy Spirit, the visible Church of Jesus was meant
to disappear, and people were to be guided solely by the free spirit.
The reader will have to trust me when I say I could list a
hundred versions of the Gospel story published in the 19th century
alone that claim supernatural authorityand often, that of Jesus Himselffor
radically revising the story of Jesus, beginning, for example, with Joseph
Smith’s The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus the Christ and continuing with various gospels communicated to
spirit-mediums from Jesus or his disciples, all claiming to tell the real truth
about Jesus, and all of themsurprise!aligning with the special pet peeves and
concerns of a Progressive, liberalizing 19th century intent on
throwing off the Catholic superstitions of the past. In one, he might be revealed as a vegetarian or an
anti-vivisectionist; in another, a labor leader or political revolutionary
organizing the masses or a spiritualist medium; in yet another, an Eastern
yogin, an ethical deist, or a feminist intent on shutting down brothels and
Theosophists also contributed their share of Jesuses. French civil servant and Freemason
Louis Jacolliot published The Bible in India, or the Life of Iezeus Christna in 1869, when he was staying in India, searching for
the “Indian roots” of western occultism. He created a pastiche of tales by
which he tried to make the case that Jesus, like Zeus and Krishna, was not
really a historical person but a myth, fostered as real by a lying and corrupt
Theosophist Franz Hartmann, in 1888, published an admitted
“allegory,” The Life of Jehoshua, The Prophet of Nazareth; an Occult Study
and Key to the Bible, Containing the History of an Initiate, which depicted Jesus as traveling to Egypt to learn
magical secrets and being initiated into a secret brotherhood there.
In 1894, Russian journalist and hoaxer Nicholas Notovitch
published The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. This very popular work described
Notovitch’s having discovered a copy of an ancient book in a Tibetan monastery
in Ladakh (Alas, it subsequently disappeared again before anyone else but
Notovitch could see it). Notovitch said that the book he “translated” had been
written by an ancient Hindu merchant about the life of a contemporary of
hisJesus (or “Issa”) as he was called in the book. Jesus had somehow gone to India and studied Pali there and
thoroughly read the Buddhist scriptures (which would, in fact, not be written
down in Pali for another four centuries).
And then there was ex-Church of Christ minister Levi
Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1909), in which Dowling, having become a Theosophist, clairvoyantly
channeled a new account of Jesus’ life, in which Jesus had gone to India and
Tibet, learned occult secrets and preached there before returning to
Palestine. The introduction to the
book quoted ex-Anglican clergyman and Theosophist Charles Leadbeater about the
superior access to the historical record itself that clairvoyants possessed:
All knowledge is theirs for the
searching, all that is, which does not transcend even this lofty plane; the
past of the world is as open to them as the present; the Akashic [i.e.,
etheric] records are ever at their disposal and history, whether ancient or
modern, unfolds itself before their eyes at their will. No longer are they at the mercy of the
historian, who may be ill-informed, and must be more or less partial; they can
study for themselves any incident in which they are interested, with the
absolute certainty of seeing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
Some spiritualists explored the distant past as well as the
future through their “psychic powers,” and saw themselves as capable of filling
gaps in historical knowledge gained through conventional means. Unfortunately, their findings routinely
contradicted on another and provided little or no evidence that ever turned out
to yield true results that were not obvious from more mundane methods.
Nevertheless, Leadbeater explained, of the clairvoyant,
that, “Not only can he review at his leisure all history with which we are
acquainted, correcting as he examines it the many errors and misconceptions
which have crept into the accounts handed down to us, he can also range at will
over the whole story of the world.”
Imagine There’s No Fact or Fiction
The ultimate aim was to transcend the distinction between
fact and fiction, as it was later explained by Theosophist and Anthroposophist
Rudolf Steiner in 1923:
Those who have enlarged their field
of knowledge are no longer dependent on external evidences where past events
are concerned. They can see that
which is not sensibly evident, yet which time cannot destroy. And so, from available sources of
history we can pass on to those which are imperishable. Such history is written in very
different letters from those which record the every-day events of past times,
for this is Gnosis.
For those elite beings who have transcended the worldly
distinctions of fact and fiction, of object and subject, and who have
condescend to bring lesser beings to such a high consciousness, they might
present fiction dressed up as if it were fact, in order to pry students from
their retrograde ideas about an objective reality, external to their
minds. The tool at hand for doing
this was “alternative reality” literature.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the
genre of occult fiction had come into its own. Students of the Occult regarded many individual works, such
as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story
and The Coming Race, as
containing truth that was veiled from the unworthy have having been explicitly
dressed up as fiction, but which they might later learn was true in the most
fundamental way. This is the genre
that is continued today in such deconstructive works as Dan Brown’s The
Da Vinci Code and Colm Toibin’s The
Testament of Mary.
A “Christian” who believed that the Gospels were fictional
myths and that truth lay entirely within his or her own subjective
facultiespresumably the attitude of many of those who discovered new gospels
in their own minds and presented them to the publicwould little hesitate to
improve the canonical Gospels or update them with more material in order to
tell a different story. He or she
might not really conceive of this as a fraud. Because, in the end, reality can be anything we want it to
be, as long as our minds are strong enough to shape it.
New Age writer Francis Fairfield, one of Levi Dowling’s
contemporaries, wrote of Dowling’s Aquarian revelations:
It is full of “meat,” but all of
Levi’s writings are, for that matter.
Where does he “get the goods”?
I don’t care, do you? I
believe he has access to the sources he claims. But what matters it?
Is truth something that somebody says? No, truth is something which I
discover. And your truth is something which you
discover. If some man says
something which appeals to you and calls forth a truth which was
within, then be thankful, and offer praise to the Giver of All Truth.
Truth is always Internal. Truth is always Recognition. Truth is always
If this is the message of the New Age, it is, of course,
merely solipsism, and ultimately nihilism. Like every Gnostic system, it deliberately brackets
objective truthbecause objective truth is part of the delusory “matter” of the
world that imprisons us. It makes
truth entirely subjective.
Everything on this worldly plane is illusory and should be shaken
off. Far from “questioning
authority,” as it claims to, it merely counsels questioning the authority of
anyone other than oneself, which is itself divine and supreme.
This indeed is Gnostic, just as Rudolf Steiner said. But it is not Christian. There is no need to fear that opening
the pages of the newspaper each day or of the “Easter” edition of Newsweek each year will uncover the “real truth” about Jesus
that will overturn the Church’s understanding of Him. Turn to the Bible and the catechism instead and be glad.