So Many Jesuses, So Little Time

Numerous attempts to rewrite and revise the life of Jesus Christ aim at destroying belief in objective truth

“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 contextualizing it.

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 was—and, not surprisingly, it was the inverse of what the Gospel said.  In this telling, the outward meaning—and the outward Church—became 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 loss—the 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 itself.

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 priests—during his life and for centuries afterwards—had 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 views—so 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 accept—as 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 done.

Instead, we find timorous souls who still cling, like parasites, to the Gospels, trying to re-envision them and the character of Jesus—to 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 authority—of Jesus.  Forget Old Covenant and New Covenant.  They envision an Old Covenant, a New Covenant, and a Newest Covenant—as 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 authority—and often, that of Jesus Himself—for 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 them—surprise!—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 saloons.

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 professional “priesthood.”

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 his—Jesus (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 truth.

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 faculties—presumably the attitude of many of those who discovered new gospels in their own minds and presented them to the public—would 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 sleeping within, then be thankful, and offer praise to the Giver of All Truth.  Truth is always Internal.  Truth is always Recognition.  Truth is always Self-Evidence.

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 truth—because 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.

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).