How much do we know about the historical Jesus?


How much do we know about the historical Jesus?  Not much, but before going any further it’s worth asking why bother looking for the historical Jesus in the first place?  For almost all Christians, Jesus is a figure of faith and belief, not a subject of historical study.  But what about Paul and the gospels, the reader might ask?  Aren’t they the source of our knowledge of the historical Jesus?  No.  Paul and the authors of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) wrote about Jesus in order to create a man who fit the needs of first-century Christians.  They cannot be considered historical sources, even if some of the things they say are historical true.

What can we know historically? 

There is widespread (if not always total) consensus that Jesus was baptized by John, that he taught and preached in Galilee, that he drew followers to himself, that he was known as an effective miracle worker and exorcist, and that he made a final journey to Jerusalem for Passover where, in conjunction with an incident in the temple, he was arrested, convicted by Pilate and crucified.  (Eddy and Beilby, pp 47-48) 

In recent years the Jewishness of Jesus has been unquestioned.  In every facet of his life Jesus was a Jew.  He was born a Jew, educated as a Jew, and lived as a Jew.

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Christianity and Buddhism don’t belong together

Christianity and Buddhism don’t belong together.  Just over fifty years ago, the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, made a pilgrimage to India to meet the Tibetan Buddhist, Chongyam Trungpa, in the hope of fostering an interfaith dialog between Christianity and Buddhism.  The dialog has flourished.  Buddhist-Christian Studies is an established journal, and interfaith conferences abound.  Curiously, a number of believers have chosen to combine their faiths.  Paul Knitter’s Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian explains why this combination works for him; evidently it does for many.

This makes no sense to me.  Christianity and Buddhism are so fundamentally different that even the question of dialog makes me wonder.  Not about the desirability of people of different faiths talking with each other; that’s always a good thing.  But about attempts to show similarities: Jesus was like a bodhisattva (a Buddhist holy man), or that the experience of prajna, or enlightenment, corresponds to the Christian experience of God.  The only work I know of that even questions their commensurability is in an essay of that title, “Are Buddhism and Christianity Commensurable?”  Remember that commensurable means not similar, but alike enough even to be fruitfully compared.  The essay in Wikipedia, “Buddhism and Christianity,” is as good as anything I have read on this subject, primarily because it displays their vast differences.

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