Ed Snow is a Mormon humorist yearning to be taken seriously. It doesn’t help that his writings evidence a wide variety of inconsistent theological and historical views, found mostly in the pages of Sunstone, Dialogue, Irreantum, The Sugar Beet, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and FARMS Review of Books, among others. He authored Of Curious Workmanship: Musings on Things Mormon published by Signature Books. Ed is a banking and finance lawyer in Atlanta.
Some of my Baptist friends say Mormons worship a different Jesus. If so, one is led to ask just how many are out there? If you go to Barnes & Noble you’ll find several brands of Jesus to choose from. Magician, philosopher, revolutionary, feminist, apocalyptic prophet, mythical figure who never existed, messiah, ancestor of the Merovingian kings, God incarnate. If there’s more than one Jesus, one important question is: What’s the plural for “Jesus”? I’ve always suspected problems arising from the correct possessive and plural forms of his name were the real secret reasons why Mormons would rather avoid the too frequent use of it. That particular LDS teaching itself would be an interesting BCC topic, but must be postponed till another day. I avoid any traditional LDS circumlocutions of that name, trusting I won’t offend anyone here.
If you start asking the question “whose Jesus are we talking about?” eventually you must ask the question “who’s this Jesus we’re talking about?” I will ask several questions about the figure of Jesus of Nazareth in a series of blogs. Did he exist? Sounds like a stupid question, but it’s one that keeps getting asked again and again. I’ll ask it and we’ll explore some documentary evidence. What did he do? What did he teach? Did he own the clothes he wore? (Regrettably, we won’t investigate this issue, although it is my favorite doctrinal dispute from The Name of the Rose.) Again, we’ll flip through the historical record, we’ll look at what some scholars have written and we’ll conduct our own mini search for the “historical Jesus.“
For Mormons and other Christians these questions might seem beside the point since they are sure that they already know the answers, even though these answers vary. But the Jesus they usually describe is not an historical Jesus at all since what is generally meant by historical Jesus is a figure known as “Jesus” from the past who is reconstructed by critically examining documentary or other evidence. By comparison, a Jesus reconstructed from confessions of faith or personal or institutional revelation (even if historical data is used in the process) is a faith Jesus. An historical Jesus may sound like the real Jesus (yet another category), but he is really just an artificial construct, a product of the art and science of historians. In terms of portraiture, the historical Jesus is a hasty line drawing with a thin piece of charcoal done in profile, not the real Jesus who would be an oil portrait painted at leisure. Certainly, the purpose of the historical method is to approximate, as closely as possible, the real Jesus, but it can never really do this, contrary claims notwithstanding.
The further back you go in antiquity, the broader the gulf becomes between the real and historical of anything. Historians and students of history (including me) are not immune from criticism here either–some continue to confuse their historical Jesus with the real Jesus. Note to self: avoid the mere appearance of over-confidence. The real Jesus did things about which there is no historical record–he may have whistled, played pranks on friends, caught the measles, had a favorite joke, suffered from male pattern baldness. No doubt the real Jesus did something contrary to what is believed by the most rational scholars to be the undisputed historical evidence giving rise to any historical Jesus.
Here’s a simplistic example of what I’m talking about. Some 19th Century Mormons believed Jesus was polygamous, that is, their faith Jesus was married and had more than one wife. You might use an historical methodology (whether faulty or not is up for discussion) to reconstruct such an historical Jesus. But whether the real Jesus was married and had more than one wife is unknowable, even though my pioneer Latter-day Saint will argue that his/her polygamous historical Jesus strongly suggests that the real Jesus was polygamous, and that s/he has a testimony that his/her faith Jesus is the real Jesus.
Any thoughts? (Later we might even talk about the faith Joseph Smith, historical Joseph Smith and real Joseph Smith.) Next week’s loaded question–Did Jesus exist?