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The search for the secular Jesus

Bold efforts to reconfigure Jesus as merely a moral teacher miss something essential about him
December 5, 2020

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson, aged nearly 80 and living in comfortable retirement at Monticello, took a scalpel to his Bible. Jefferson had endured a bruising presidential campaign in 1800 in which it was alleged he was an atheist who would turn America into a “nation of atheists.” The choice, electors were told, was between “God and a religious president, or Jefferson and no god.” Under Jefferson, one preacher warned, “murder, robbery, rape… will be openly taught and practised [and] the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed.” American politics was dirty back then.

Jefferson won the election, and the next, but never shook off his reputation for godlessness. His biblical carve-up was not, however, an act of sacrilege or retribution for decades of smearing by the devout. Arguably, it was an undertaking of genuine and painstaking respect. His plan was to excise all references to incarnation, miracles and resurrection from the gospels. These were, he believed, nothing but the residue of a primitive and superstitious culture. In their place he would preserve only Jesus’s ethical teachings, “a system,” wrote Jefferson, “of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.”

During the summer of 1820, he produced a slim document, about 84 pages, comprising around a thousand verses, which, as he saw it, rescued Jesus’s ethical gold from its supernatural dross. He eventually consented to have an outline printed without his name attached. The full document, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth but came to be known as the Jefferson Bible, only came to light in the 1890s. It is the subject of Peter Manseau’s fine “biography,” the latest in Princeton University Press’s excellent series on the Lives of Great Religious Books.

The search for the purely “ethical Jesus” is probably as old as Christianity itself. For over a century now, biblical scholars have posited the existence of an early source text, which they entitled Q, on which Matthew and Luke’s gospels seem to have drawn. Never discovered, although heavily hypothesised and reconstructed, Q is supposed to have been a collection of Jesus’s teachings, direct and parabolic, shorn of their biographical context. This ethical Jesus, so the argument goes, was combined with Mark’s narrative gospel, to produce the Technicolor image that passed into canonical form. 

Whether or not Q actually existed, there are different strands in the gospels to encourage people, like Jefferson, to tease out the ethical Jesus. It is, however, a perilous business. Scholars of the historical Jesus are familiar with the jibe that they only ever glimpse their own face at the bottom of a deep well. The danger is surely greater for those who seek the ethical Jesus. Everyone, except the occasional Nietzsche, admires Jesus, so everyone is tempted to see in him their own best moral intuitions—or those of their age—and ignore his more unpalatable lessons.

Jefferson’s Jesus is a case study. It was produced with alarming speed and ease. “I will venture to affirm that he who… will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff,” Jefferson wrote to a friend, “will find it not to require a moment’s consideration; the parts fall asunder of themselves.” To no one’s surprise, then, the result looks a bit like (an idealised) Thomas Jefferson. Reasonable, moral, thoughtful, anti-clerical—Jefferson’s Jesus is a creature of words rather than deeds, of moral autonomy rather than established, priestly laws. As Manseau puts it, he was a man who “follows his own rules when he regards the strictures of tradition unjust.”

The identification was not exact. Jefferson remarked in a letter to William Short that one of the differences between Jesus and himself was that whereas Jesus “preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it.” It is not entirely clear which he considered more admirable. 

Such deviations aside, however, Jefferson’s ethical Jesus is clearly a creature of the author’s mind and age. Julian Baggini’s Jesus, by contrast, is not. Baggini is a philosopher and writer who manages to combine serious erudition and accessible prose. A believer in his teenage years, he came to find the Christian story “increasingly implausible” and now describes himself as a “convinced (but not dogmatic) atheist.” In that guise, he has been one of the most eloquent and attractive atheist voices of the last 15 years, free from the contempt that characterised “New Atheism,” and animated instead by a spirit of intelligent enquiry and intellectual generosity. Both are on display in The Godless Gospel.

A book of this title could easily lend itself to “humanist” platitudes advising readers to “stop worrying” and “enjoy your life,” but Baggini winces whenever he remembers the notorious atheist bus campaign. Worse, it could be the kind of polemic in which the writer gleefully points out the various inconsistencies within, or the morally derivative nature of, parts of the gospels. Baggini self-consciously avoids these approaches. “It would be easy,” he writes in his introduction, “to pick up on these contradictions and dismiss the moral philosophy of Jesus as incoherent.” In contrast, he works hard to contextualise, integrate and understand Jesus’s ethics, without ever “bending interpretation so far that it breaks.”

The book comprises two parts. The first is a careful reconstruction of Jesus’s “moral philosophy,” drawing on Baggini’s own reading and a series of interviews with scholars and writers—of whom, for full disclosure, I was one. The second is an 80-odd page compilation of the ethical Jesus. (A complaint: Baggini uses the King James Version “because it is widely agreed to be the most poetic.” Perhaps, but reassembled and reused for specifically ethical purposes, it merely sounds archaic and elusive.)

Baggini’s Jesus is a kind of extreme virtue ethicist. He advocates self-transformation through metanoia and kenosis, or as Baggini translates them a “revolution of the soul” and “emptying ourselves of our egotistical desires.” His is a practical wisdom, know-how rather than know-that. He is deeply antagonistic to legalism, and more impressed by deeds than creeds. “True Christian morality is not a long list of dos and don’ts,” Baggini reflects. “It’s a challenge to respond with love to the specific needs of every individual situation.” While this is true, it makes Jesus sound a bit too sensible. 

Baggini doesn’t leave things there, however. The Jesus he portrays is ascetic and activist, morally urgent and uncompromisingly pacifist, contemptuous towards wealth, subversive of politics, “against organised religion,” and sceptical to the point of being actively hostile towards “family values.” 

He finds much of Jesus’s teaching “discomforting, and… objectionable,” at least to any normal conception of a happy life. In Baggini’s summary, “the world-renouncing teaching of Jesus is hard to swallow for anyone remotely attached to their mortal existence.” In the end, he concludes that although other more complete philosophies provide a better basis for action, Jesus’s teachings “offer a much-needed challenge to our moral thinking that shakes us out of any complacency.” 

This persuasive picture of Jesus’s ethics is startlingly close to that drawn by the American theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart, as demonstrated in his recent translation of the New Testament. Hart was reminded “how profound the provocations of what [Jesus and his earliest followers] were saying were for their own age, and probably remain for every age.” Far from teaching “family values,” he writes, Christ was “remarkably dismissive” of the family, and of “decent civic order.” Few people could ever “imitate [his] obstinacy and perversity” and “most of us” would find the earliest Christians “fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable.” Hart and Baggini look down the well and see the same face glaring defiantly back at them. It certainly looks nothing like the one Thomas Jefferson saw.

All this obviously challenges the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild stereotype. More seriously, it challenges anyone who claims to follow Jesus. Baggini repeatedly points out through The Godless Gospel how often and how greatly Christians have moderated Jesus’s ethics to save their own moral skins. He’s right: but for those of us who are believers that is all the more reason to heed Baggini’s version. It is precisely because Baggini doesn’t claim to follow him that he is able to avoid diluting the ethical Jesus. 

And yet, for all Baggini achieves—he manages to preserve Jesus’s pungent ethical challenge, translates it into terms that make sense for our more secular age, and does so without making Jesus sound like a 21st-century figure—ultimately the exercise doesn’t quite work.

Describing Jefferson’s ethical Jesus, Peter Manseau observed that for all the pages of inspiring ethical instruction, the former president was able to offer “no real sense of why anyone would have listened to [Jesus].” The problem is especially acute at the end. Retelling the Passion story, Jefferson describes Jesus’s suffering without any sense of a higher purpose. “In the end, Jefferson’s Jesus simply dies, and then his body is taken away.” The torturers win.

Baggini wrestles with the same problem, rather more successfully than Jefferson, but doesn’t, I think, manage to come to a satisfactory answer. Throughout Jesus’s life and ministry, people constantly remarked on his “authority”: his authority in contradicting religious scholars, in challenging Temple authorities, in reformulating the law, in healing sick people, in controlling nature. Nor was Jesus shy about this. “You’ve heard it said [in the law]… but I say unto you…” Baggini acknowledges this but also recognises how uncomfortably it sits with his picture. However humble and self-giving Jesus was, his talk and his walk, complete with what Baggini dubs his “call to follow,” could be gratingly self-important. It’s one of the things that led him to his fate.

That fate is another sticking point. Baggini turns Manseau’s criticism of the fruitless sacrifice that Jefferson’s Jesus makes into a positive strength, by arguing that the promise of resurrection actually weakens the moral power of Jesus’s self-sacrifice by softening the agonising death with the promise of reward. “Sometimes, paradoxically,” he writes, “we flourish more by dying than by saving our life.” I cannot see how that makes sense outside of any spiritual or eternal framework. After all, dead creatures can’t flourish.

None of this is intended to take the challenging edge off Baggini’s ethical Jesus, or to deny that he does as good a job as possible of stripping “away the religious elements of the accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings and see[ing] what secular ethic remains.” It is to say that, ultimately, I don’t think you can strip away those elements and retain a coherent figure. When the ethical Jesus is asked to stand up, the authoritative, existential, perhaps even divine figure comes with him, sticking to the moral man like his own shadow. 

Manseau concludes that in spite of his intentions, Jefferson’s efforts ended up reinforcing the idea that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth could not be separated from their religious context and traditions. Baggini does a better job than anyone else I’ve read at transposing Jesus into a moral philosophical key, but ultimately he suffers a similar fate. The reader is left with the same nagging question that Jesus put to his first followers: Who do you say I am?

The Jefferson Bible: A Biography by Peter Manseau (Princeton University Press, £22)

The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? by Julian Baggini (Granta, £16.99)