We really don’t know much about Jesus.
To show that, here’s a perspective on Jesus from Bruce Barton – a critical dissection of his method that, for unclear reasons, I don’t think Christians are usually willing to entertain:
Finally he knew the necessity for repetition and practiced it.
It has been said that “reputation is repetition.” No important truth can be impressed upon the minds of any large number of people by being said only once. The thoughts which Jesus had to give the world were revolutionary, but they were few in number. “God is your father,” he said, “caring more for the welfare of every one of you than any human father can possibly care for his children. His Kingdom is happiness! His rule is love.” This is what he head to teach, but he knew the necessity of driving it home form every possible angle. So in one of his stories God is the shepherd searching the wilds for one wandering sheep; in another, the Father welcoming home a prodigal boy; in another a King who forgives his debtors large amounts and expects them to be forgiving in turn – many stories, many advertisements, but the same big Idea.
His language was marvelously simple – a second great essential. There is hardly a teaching which a child cannot understand. His illustrations were all drawn from the commonest experiences of life; “a sower went forth to sow”; “a certain man had two sons”; “a man built his house on the sands”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” The absence of adjectives is striking.
Jesus used few qualifying words and no long ones. We referred a minute ago to those three literary materpieces, The Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Gettysburg Address. Recall their phraseology:
- Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
- Four score and seven years ago.
Not a single three-syllable word; hardly any two-syllable words. All the greatest things in human life are one-syllable things – love, joy, hope, home, child, wife, trust, faith, God – and the great advertisements, generally speaking, are those in which the most small words are found.
Irreverent to speak of Jesus as marketer? Was he simply an advocate of a “big Idea?” Is it right to consider and judge his method, even if we find it flawless?
On that note, here’s another selection to consider – this time from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.
I’ve read this over and over. I think it shows just how little about Jesus we really know.
As a kid in Sunday School, I remember watching animated movies about this episode — of Jesus calling his disciples to “follow me.” In them, he walks about seemingly unknown to the hoards of people living around the Sea of Galilee. He walks up to random young men that he seemingly didn’t know beforehand. He asks them to drop their things and follow him.
If you really think about it, there are only a few explanations for this. People do not randomly leave their families and livelihoods behind to follow a stranger. Have you done this? Has anyone you know done this?
Even cult leaders develop a relationship with their followers before leading them away from their families and livelihoods. Perhaps they wrote a book that their followers have read. Maybe they demonstrate powerful understanding of things their followers care about. Whatever it is, cults don’t appear spontaneously–their leaders possess some characteristic or history that lends them influence in their followers’ minds before they make the decision to leave everything behind.
On that note, I see two possible explanations for Simon and Andrew’s bizarre behavior.
- They were influenced by some supernatural power to follow a man they knew nothing about.
- They knew something about Jesus that quelled their natural, healthy hesitancy to follow him anywhere.
The first one is, I think, the most commonly-believed explanation. Movie depictions of this episode often entail some majestic-looking bearded man walking, trance-like, toward Simon and Andrew, and calling their names in a hypnotic voice. They, also trance-like, drop their things and follow him as he continues walking down the lake-shore.
I can’t prove this explanation wrong. It’s plausible. It is, however, lazy. It forgoes any more relatable explanation, or one that might be more useful to one with a healthy skepticism of random, supernatural events. I don’t like such explanations. They don’t jive with what we know to be true about the human condition.
The second one is interesting because, if it’s true, it opens the door to further knowledge about Jesus’ life and influence prior to the beginning of his ministry. We don’t know much about Jesus’ twenties except that he was a carpenter. We don’t know if he had friends, where he lived, or how he spent his time.
Extra-biblical depictions of Jesus during this time tend to skim over it, often alluding to twenty-something Jesus as a sort-of “man in waiting” who knew his ministry was not to begin until later.
But such a depiction isn’t necessarily true. It’s conjecture. It’s possible that Jesus had a full life and was very influential among his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a profound speaker. Maybe he was exceptionally strong or tall or boisterous. Maybe he was a genius (see Luke 2) and engaged others with deep insights about God and the Torah.
What I’m really getting at is the possibility that Jesus was very relatable, and that we really know very little about him. Christians believe he is God, but they also believe he is “fully man.” So could others see in him a person they wanted to be? Could they relate to him? Did his boldness inspire them to live better lives? Did they aspire to be more like him? Did they even think that was possible?
Yes, I think, on all points.