What if the Jesus we know from the gospels is more a fabrication of the mind of a reformed Pharisee than an actual character in history? I am not the first to pose this question. However, as I continue to study the sacred scriptures of the New Testament its validity continues to grow. Some scholars have proposed that the rabbi Paul should be credited with the creation of the religion of Christianity. While this question is oversimplified, it may contain some elements of truth.
There is little doubt among biblical scholars that the early Christian church consisted of two separate bodies. The first of these bodies was a largely Jewish sect founded by the historical character of Jesus and propagated by those Jews who called themselves his disciples. The other body, though linked in some way to the first, was a separate group consisting primarily of gentile converts to Jewish principle. From what biblical record we have this second group seems to have been founded by the Jewish rabbi Paul during his missionary exploits. These two groups seemingly coincided with each other until shortly after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. After this time the Jewish Christian body which was seemingly founded by Jesus himself seems to fizzle out while the gentile body founded by Paul continues on. The rest is well documented history. This gentile Christian body would continue to grow eventually picking up the endorsement of the empire and solidifying itself as the most powerful theocracy in the world for hundreds of years.
What is most interesting to me is that the picture of Jesus that we get in the bible is from gospels that seem to have been written by the gentile church. In fact, at first glance it seems that the original Jewish Christian sect had very little influence on the picture of Christ that emerges from scripture. It is because of this that some scholars argue that Paul not Jesus was the founder of the Christian church. Many scholars have assumed, in spite of the lack of Jewish sources, that the picture found in the gospels of Jesus is a fairly accurate depiction. With no seemingly contradictory text scholars were left to assume that the gentile church, which spawned from the original Jewish movement, had preserved the heart and essence of the person and teachings of Jesus. However, recently there has been a further combing of the New Testament scriptures to find traces of the original Jewish bodies influence on the text. Many scholars attribute gospel material found in the undiscovered gospel of Q to be the remnants of the early Jewish body’s texts. While this is certainly possible another even more intriguing option has emerged.
Some scholars have begun to claim that an entire book of the New Testament can be ascribed to the early Jewish Christian church. That book is the highly controversial text known as The Apocalypse or Revelation. Based on the highly Jewish content of the book, and the seeming condemnation of compromising Christians, which we know to be a point of contention among the two bodies, it now seems possible that the text of Revelation is the sole surviving manuscript of the Jewish Christian sect that was started by Jesus. To be fair this is still a highly controversial viewpoint, and I do not have the time nor desire to expound on the intricacies of the argument. Rather, I would like to take a step back and hypothesize about the meaning of this discovery were it found to be true. Of all of the things that would come from this, the most startling is that the Jesus we know is not the Jesus who was.
Revelation paints a very different picture of the character Jesus than the one found in the gospels. The Jesus of Revelation is a warrior prince destined to lead the armies of God against the forces of evil. This Jesus is not the “love your enemy, turn the other cheek” Jesus of the gospels. Rather he is a hard liner, dogmatic, extremist who cast not only the evil but also the compromising into the lake of fire. He is seen to stand against Christians who do not follow the strictest of Jewish laws and seems bent on destroying the Roman Empire by force instead of by servant hood. This Jesus is far from the one that welcomes little children to him in the gospel. In fact this Jesus is more like the zealots that are condemned in the gospels than the loving son of God sent to save the world from bondage.
What is most intriguing to me is that the Jesus of Revelation, if the hypothesis is true, is closer to the actual Jesus than the one found in the gospels. If indeed the book of Revelation is the last remaining text of the early Jewish Christian sect, then it is uniquely closer to the historical Jesus than the gospels. If this is the case, then the Jesus we have come to know and love is more a fabrication of the rabbi Paul than a picture of the man himself. Faced with this conundrum I too would choose the rabbi’s fabrication over the historical man. Furthermore, maybe we should be attributing to Paul the creation of one of the greatest religions ever. For if he was able to take the historical character of Jesus, found in Revelation, and mold him into the gospel character that we know and love, then he truly is a rare kind of religious genius.