Two days after celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth this seems a good time to talk about him, especially following recent research on what people think about Jesus and his followers.
Entitled Perceptions of Jesus, Christians and Evangelism in England the research has been popularised as the Talking Jesus project. Commissioned by the Church of England in partnership with the Evangelical Alliance and HOPE, more than 2500 adults aged 18 or over were surveyed.
When the results were published, unsurprisingly the headline writers highlighted some of the more uncomfortable findings. One was the greater percentage of people put off by a conversation about Jesus with a Christian compared with those who wished to know more.
This did not come as much of a shock to me having experienced (and sobering thought, possibly initiated) a few misplaced, preachy or alienating conversations myself. The conclusion of some columnists, that Christians would be better saying nothing than sharing their faith, probably reflected more about them than the data itself.
However, there was one particular finding I found astonishing. When asked Which of the following best describes your understanding of Jesus Christ? only 60% regarded him as a real person who actually lived. Four in every 10 adults regarded Jesus as a mythical or fictional character or were not sure whether he was real, with millennials (aged 18-34) being most likely not to view Jesus as a historical person. This finding reminded me of Soviet Russia and the endeavours of the Communist regime to systematically discredit Christian belief by claiming that Jesus of Nazareth never lived and was a figure of fiction. I have been asking myself how in the UK we could have such remarkable and worrying ignorance.
Three decades ago, the New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders wrote a seminal book entitled Jesus and Judaism. In it Sanders listed what he described as eight almost indisputable facts about Jesus. These could accepted by academics across the board, whether Christian, of no particular religion, atheist, or a different faith altogether; the most sceptical and the most devout could affirm these core statements because of their solid historical basis.
For the record his eight almost indisputable facts were these: Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist; he was a Galilean who preached and healed; he called disciples and spoke of their being 12; Jesus confined his activity to Israel; he engaged in a controversy about the Temple; he was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities; and lastly, that at least some Jews persecuted at least part of the new movement, and this endured at least to a time near the end of Paul (the apostles) career. The many occurrences of at least in this last statement provide a flavour of Sanders caution and care.
In 1993, Sanders wrote another volume, The historical figure of Jesus, in which he added further highly probable facts including that Jesus was born around 4 BCE, near the time of King Herod the Greats death. Sanders even listed as highly probable the fact that his disciples saw Jesus in some way following his death. This led to the belief that he would later return and found the kingdom he taught and preached about.
While scholarly argument and challenge are bound to continue, it is remarkable how well Sanders list has stood up to testing and scrutiny. Given this, and the simple truth that there is less historical evidence for the existence of Julius Caesar than for Jesus of Nazareth, how can so many adults especially younger ones - doubt that Jesus walked this earth? Clearly follow up research is needed but my guess is that rhetoric from militant atheists has played a significant part.
When belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the virgin conception and the healing of the lame, the blind and the mute, are equated to belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden it is understandable that people may conclude that Jesus is a figure of the imagination. In the heat of denouncing Christian faith I appreciate that convinced unbelievers are not interested in reassuring listeners or readers about Jesus historical reality or exploring the reasonableness of Sanders facts; polemic does not work this way. However, truth can easily become a casualty of polemic, to all our detriment.
Given the season, I want to end on a lighter note. Buying flowers for my wife, I got into a conversation with the florist about school nativity plays. Apparently, her daughter was playing the part of China girl number 9! Though this sounded very creative, the florist was as puzzled as me about how this fitted into the story of Jesus birth; a different take on the wise visitors from the east perhaps? Not all innovation in primary school nativities will have helped the millennial generation appreciate Jesus as a historical figure. Plays that feature dinosaurs, Daleks and cartoon characters alongside the Holy Family could well prove another source of confusion!