Mythologizing Christ

Is there a tendency for Christians to turn Jesus into a mythological hero in the same way the we have made myths out of other beloved historical figures, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Davey Crockett?

I am not talking about the doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Nor am I questioning the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts. I am someone who firmly believes that Jesus is the Son of God, that he suffered and died on the cross to save us from our sins and that two days later rose from the dead, with a newly divine and perfect physical nature.

Though many skeptics see this synopsis of Jesus’ life as myth, it differs from typical religious mythology in that the sacrificial violence, the innocence of the victim and the sinful culpability of the entire community has not been glossed over and replaced with sanitized symbols. The uniqueness of the Gospel accounts is found in the ‘dirt’ that has not been brushed under the carpet. The sacrificial scapegoat does not nobly fade away and his death does not temporarily assuage the violent passions of contending cultural groups. The scapegoat miraculously comes back and those complicit (all of us) in his wrongful death are exposed for what they are, even as the scapegoat forgives them for what they did. There is a dirty realism to this story that aligns with what we know of history.

But what of Jesus the man? If he was “fully” man, as scripture states, that must mean that he had all of the physical, mental and emotional qualities of a human being. But there are degrees of qualifications and sometimes these degrees are called deficiencies (we all have them). Did Jesus have any physical or mental deficiencies, or was he the perfect “Uberman”?

We know almost nothing of the first 30 years of his life, other than some brief infant accounts and the one adolescent story concerning the time he disobeyed his parents at the temple in Jerusalem. But that incident suggests that, in at least one or two ways, he was much like other immature, yet gifted, boys.

As a baby he would have soiled his diapers, cried when he was hungry, in pain or frustrated. He probably felt pangs of insecurity when his mother left the room or perhaps felt a twinge of anxiety when his father returned home, irritated from a hard day’s labor. As a completely human male, he likely noticed pretty girls and perhaps vied for their attention in athletic competitions with other young men. If working as a carpenter’s apprentice perhaps he felt his face flush in embarrassment when he cut the molding at the wrong angle or ruined the finished piece with a misplaced hammer blow.

Some of the Apocryphal Gospels go to great lengths in an attempt to fill in these blanks of Jesus’ life and in doing so they develop a new, flawed mythology. In the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas”, Jesus turns clay figurines into actual living birds (also repeated in the Qur’an ) and strikes dead an offending playmate with just one look of his eye. Most of the Church (rightfully, I think) has dismissed these stories as legendary “tall tales”.

But is it essential for Christians to see Jesus as being somehow corporeally perfect? And if so, what do we mean by ‘perfection’? Some, who see the foretelling of his ministry in the writings of Isaiah, have come to understand that Jesus’ physical appearance may have been described as ‘ugly’. Alternatively, Andrew Greeley (the Danielle Steele of the Catholic priesthood) thinks that Jesus, being Jesus, probably was quite the sexy ‘hunk’ and very attractive to woman. Which one of these descriptions is likely to promote deep, spiritual relationships – the everyday person who can overcome all obstacles with God’s help, or the matinée idol, enjoying the advantages of his superficial gifts?

Dallas Willard suggests in “The Divine Conspiracy” that Jesus would most likely be an expert at all things and this is why – as engineers, teachers, doctors, bakers, bricklayers – we can come to him with all of our problems; spiritual, physical as well as professional. But is Willard talking about Jesus the mortal man here, or the Risen Jesus, who we see as being alive and with us today, even as he “sits at the right hand of the Father”?

Suggesting that the pre-risen Jesus was somehow physically and mentally ‘perfect’ in all ways, aside from his relationship with the Father, is bordering on dangerous mythology. I think there is more to this Incarnation than just seeing Jesus as the “perfect sacrifice”; God paying for our sins himself, a legal satisfaction, in order that we might be saved. Here we have God condescending to become like us, an inconceivable sacrifice alone, and we minimize the greatness of this sacrifice when we do not see Jesus as a man but instead some sort of God-Man.

When performing miracles and exorcising demons; is he using his own supernatural power or is he calling upon the power of the Father, something he says many will do when in right relationship with God? In the temple with the money changers; does he exhibit the cool, detached superior control of his emotions one might expect from a God-Man, or does he ‘lose it’ just a little bit? With the Canaanite women who asks for mere table scraps of grace, is he so intellectually superior and prescient (yet somehow devious) that he demeans this woman, using her fears and feelings to make a point? Or did he perhaps, tired and frustrated from dealing with obstinate Pharisees and dull witted Apostles, speak first without thinking? That is a forgivable human response.

Was Jesus the perfect sacrifice, like an unblemished lamb? Or did he lovingly make the perfect sacrifice, choosing to surrender to the human fear, pain and uncertainty of the Cross, something he tells us that we all can (and should) do, with the help of God.

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  1. #1 by Stephanie on August 21, 2008 - 10:36 pm

    Great post Chris!

    Lots to think about, I like your thoughts. Thanks.

  2. #2 by Alan on August 25, 2008 - 4:26 pm

    I often think that the “untold” stories of Jesus’ life — you know the one’s John alludes too at the end of his Gospel — would be fascinating to read… and a great source for some creative writing.

    I tend to agree with your idea that if the guy was “fully human” then he experienced the full range of emotions growing up … Now I’m not sure how you could do that “without sin” unless you were also “fully divine”.

  3. #3 by Chris Beyer on August 25, 2008 - 5:24 pm

    I think it depends upon how we define sin. Someone earlier said the original word was ‘chait’ literally missing the mark. Is it primarily those actions that miss the mark -which implies at least an attitude of trying to hit the mark- in which case perhaps he may have ‘sinned’ (Gasp!) or is sin the pervasive and overarching attitude of selfishness which consumes most of us (if not all of us at some point)?

    What about the idea that Jesus was fully man but not fully divine until after the cross?

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