The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw

I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing.  For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure.  Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like.  Some were less than serious.  I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.

Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world.  Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth.  Yeah, that guy.

This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus.  The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy.  Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?”  Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV.  In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.

She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible.  Where do they mention Christmas?  Why is there no date?  What about Easter?  How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday?  Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited.  She couldn’t wait to get started.

I have deep reservations about this.  I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school.  The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin.  Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath.  There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.

On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material.  Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper?  His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it.  More people died in his name than anyone else.  His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives.  This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count.  Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.

If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ‘em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either.  Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire.  He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no.  Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either).  Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94).  Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers.  However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension.  Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming.  A guy like that is just asking for it.”)

Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials.  This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier.  The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction).  Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD.  And we see how Josephus has his problems.  Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded.  Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time.  Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).

Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness.  Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value.  It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old.  For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists.  Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath.  Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff.  That way, at least she’s clear about his message.

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2 responses to “The Jesus Problem: How to teach about “you-know-who”

  1. Pingback: Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 3: Christmas « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

  2. Pingback: Myths of Our Founding: Carol Berkin on Teaching the Revolution « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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