Vail Daily collumnist Jack Van Ens: Who is Jesus, really?
Vail, CO, Colorado
A Christmas carol asks, “What child is this, laid to rest/On Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
This query functions like a hinge upon which the New Testament swings. Who is Jesus?
On the 1950s “Lone Ranger” TV shows, town rustics didn’t recognize the man hidden behind a mask. Similarly, biblical people wondered who Jesus really was.
Thomas Jefferson stripped away layers of the Bible to find the real Jesus. He acted like researchers at Monticello who scraped off layers of paint in the dining room a few years ago. They discovered the oldest layer of Wedgewood blue paint on the walls was from a post-Jefferson period. He favored one of his era’s most fashionable colors, a very expensive paint with chrome yellow pigment. Visitors who tour the dining room today see walls painted this bold yellow.
Acting like a restorer who removes layers of paint, Jefferson sifted through what he deemed corrupt portions of the New Testament. He used human rationality as the plumb line that measured whether what the Bible attributed to Jesus was spurious or authentic.
By “reason,” Jefferson meant what our senses tell us is true, real and worth keeping. Reason is sensible to our minds; superstition isn’t.
Using reason as a gauge for determining Jesus’ identity, Jefferson reported his findings to the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush (1746-1813).
“To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed,” Jefferson declared, “but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence and believing he never claimed any other.”
Jefferson denied Christ’s divinity as a “holy mysticism” the Christian Church concocted, influenced by the pagan Greek philosopher Plato.
He dismissed the Trinity as the “abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t “the Christ,” a scriptural title that denotes his unique status as the Jewish messiah.
Jefferson believed humankind’s gravest weakness was ignorance. We need a moral paragon like Jesus to correct our bad habits. Jefferson rejected what the church taught – that humanity’s sin separated us from God, which necessitates a divine savior to bridge the gap.
When the Bible didn’t agree with Jefferson’s preference, he took a razor and cut out only scripture that saw Jesus as a moral force of the highest order.
In 1819 during retirement at Monticello, the 77-year-old Jefferson carefully pasted onto loose pages parallel columns of scripture in Greek, Latin, French and English. He titled this volume “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” Through the years, it has popularly been called “The Jefferson Bible.”
Recently, this fragile “Reader’s Digest version of the Bible” has been preserved. It’s displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s aversion to Christ’s status in the trinity. Late in life, when asked what he thought of Jesus’ divinity, Franklin quipped, “I haven’t given it much consideration.”
He believed our nation needed a “national faith,” one in which citizens based morality on a providential God who guides and protects our country. Such a broad, inclusive national faith lacked sectarian doctrine, such as Christ’s divinity.
Presidents honor this creed by saluting God in their major addresses and ending with “God bless America.” Rarely in these national settings do they whisper a word about Jesus, certainly not about his divine status.
Physician Rush, a scientist and humanitarian who represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, objected to Jefferson’s faith.
As a Presbyterian who believed a divine savior lifts from us the albatross of human sin, Rush urged Jefferson to formulate his convictions in writing. With more study, Rush hoped Jefferson might discover where he erred.
Today, some citizens who aren’t Christian still honor Jesus in the same way they do Moses, the Buddha and Confucius – as moral leaders who shape ethical reform.
Some Christians side with Jefferson about Jesus. They honor him as a humanitarian.
Others who worship Christ bow before their savior and lord, as Denver Bronco quarterback Tim Tebow does. They assent to a mystery of faith reason can’t pierce.
When they look into Jesus’ eyes, they see God; when they hear his voice, they recognize it as the Lord’s; when they walk in Jesus’ footsteps, they sense a divine imprint. Such believers don’t dismiss “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as phony or rife with superstition. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity / Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.”
Whether we side with Benjamin Rush or Thomas Jefferson regarding Jesus’ identity, Christmas prompts us to ponder and then ask, “Who was he, really?”
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.