The Passion of the Christ looks to have secured its place financially among the movies that have grossed the most during their opening week. Its $23.5 million first day's take puts it in the company of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" series and the latest "Star Wars" movies.
While it is a good bet that many of those attending the movie this week are Christians, it is also a good bet that many do not share Gibson's conservative Catholic piety or evangelical Protestants' theological commitment to seeing Jesus' act as one of substitutionary atonement.
This is just another reminder that the American fascination with Jesus—which begins with his Passion but radiates out to every aspect of his life and times—transcends theological camps.
Just a few examples:
Even in the current climate of Middle Eastern unrest, thousands of the devout and the curious still hope some day, before they die, to visit the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
We re-enact each Christmas, on our front lawns and the small stages of our churches, the events of the Nativity. We meditate, our minds a romantic haze of camels, sand, and rough-hewn inns: what would it have been like for Mary, in that harsh, impoverished environment, to have that baby?
The erstwhile headline-grabbing Jesus Seminar has titillated us with its promise to reveal the "real historical Jesus"—as a Jewish mystic, or a wandering revolutionary, or something even more wild, foreign, and unsuspected.
The apocalyptic stories of Hal Lindsey and Jerry Jenkins have commanded sales in the millions by dwelling in a sort of loving horror on the circumstances surrounding His personal return.
In other words, theology aside, we Americans can't seem to shake this urge to get closer to Jesus of Nazareth—"in the flesh," or as close as history can bring us.
Of course, most of us know that many of the images conjured by this urge are fanciful. As debunking scholars love to tell us, everything we know about the Nativity is wrong—there was no inn; there were no donkeys; and the Three Wise Men may have been neither three, nor wise, nor—even—men. And the competing claims of Holy Land sites supposedly related to the life and death of Jesus render our touristic "walks in His footsteps" more exercises of the imagination than journeys of historic research.
So, we may ask, what can we know about the life and times of Jesus?
The answer: a great deal. During the past few decades, much excellent scholarship has uncovered details of first-century Jewish and Roman culture that put Jesus' teachings and the birth of Christianity in the context of his time. Westminster Abbey Canon Theologian N. T. Wright, Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson, and other scholars have greatly enriched our understanding of, to take just one example, the religious and political motives of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots.
When we at Christian History set out a few years ago to review the historical record on the circumstances of Jesus' birth, ministry, death, and resurrection, we discovered a world of information. This became the basis of our Issue 59: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Here is how we introduced the topic of what we can really know about the historical Jesus, in the opening pages of that issue:
"Christians and non-Christians alike have argued over the 'real' Jesus since the first century. Conclusions have ranged from the merely odd (like the Gnostic Jesuses who spoke with mystical vagueness) to the absurd (some have argued Jesus didn't even exist).
"Recent historical scholarship has narrowed our options substantially. Ironically, we now know more about Jesus and his world than we have in centuries. 'One scholar poignantly joked that the third quest for the historical Jesus threatens to become a quest of the historical Galilee,' remarked a book reviewer recently. 'But the joke is based on stunning success.'
"The first quest ended at the beginning of this century, when Albert Schweitzer showed that nineteenth-century biographies of Jesus merely made Jesus into a nineteenth-century person. The second quest began in the middle of this century and ended with skepticism: Rudolph Bultmann and his disciples believed nothing historically reliable was to be found in the Gospels.
"We're now on our third quest for the historical Jesus. Though it's gained notoriety because of the skeptical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, it has been a stunning success indeed. In the last 50 years, manuscript discoveries and archaeological finds have enlarged our understanding of Jesus because they've helped us understand the world of first-century Palestine as never before.
"As we embark on the third millennium since Jesus' birth, then, we can know not only that Jesus really walked the land of Palestine, but we can imagine, with historical accuracy, what it would have been like to walk with him."
We have no doubt that Mel Gibson's movie will throw fresh fuel on the fire of America's curiosity about the "real" historical Jesus. We invite you to browse previews of the remaining articles—in the hope, frankly, that you will be inspired to order the issue. Working on it certainly opened our eyes—we suspect reading it will have the same effect on you.
Meanwhile, we can appreciate the thought, expounded by historian Ben Witherington III in Issue 59's opening article (see the preview here), that the Gospels themselves are examples of ancient histories and biographies. They reveal compelling historical facts about the Man of Nazareth whose supreme sacrifice is now flickering across the screens of thousands of American theaters—and anchoring the faith of millions worldwide.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Mistrial of the Millennium | How those in power bent the rules to ensure the outcome. (Summer 1998)
The Scandal of the Grave | Jesus' humiliation didn't end at the cross. (Summer 1998)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13,2004)
The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army | Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what's it all about? (Feb. 06, 2004)
Would You Like to Super-Size Your Ministry? | Joan Kroc's $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army promises to boost its admirable outreach, but history suggests new challenges and temptations lie ahead. (Jan. 30, 2004)
When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)
John Paul II's Canonization Cannon | Why and how this pope has made over 470 saints. (Oct. 24, 2003)
Will the Next Pope Be an African? | Sixty-four years ago, the Roman Catholic Church consecrated its first black African bishop. Is it time now for the next step? (Oct. 17, 2003)
When Denominations Divide | The two-century-old "Unitarian controversy" suggests a grim prognosis for the current crisis in the Episcopal Church (Oct. 10, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it (Oct. 3, 2003)