The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 2 – The Jesus of History

As we take up the second part of this brief two-part series comparing the Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus we now turn to consider Jesus Christ. For many scholars doing work in the area of the Historical Jesus, the parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ is indeed an apt metaphor. Our goal is to look at the development of both individuals, in this Christmas season, and see how they relate to this larger issue of the Historical Jesus.

You can read the previous post, The Santa of Faith, by clicking here.

Though the term “Historical Jesus” is often a dirty word in evangelical churches, we should admit that the three, or four, quests have at least produced this benefit: we have a better understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus in His Second Temple era than before. Because of the pushback from rigorous scholars who have questioned the inculturated Jesus of their day, we now have a better view of who Jesus actually is and was in His day. Though there have been excesses and, let’s be honest, completely ridiculous side trails by a few scholars, the various quests have produced some compelling scholarship.

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Just like our previous inquiry about the Historical Santa Claus, the Historical Jesus is indeed rooted in an actual individual who lived in antiquity. Of the few things scholars of all camps generally agree on, Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived in Palestine during the late Second Temple period, had followers/disciples, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Outside of these facts there is little agreement down the scholarly line. Of course, once we get to the evangelical side (where I do align myself) we see a broader acceptance of biblical reconstructions of Jesus’ life.

Not to get too waylaid by the scholarly discussion, one of the realities about the Historical Jesus is that when we look across the timeline of history to see how Jesus Christ is portrayed there is a different result than when we consider the evolution of Santa Claus. Granted, there are certainly some terrible representations of Jesus that exist even in our day (i.e. Talking Jesus Action Figure…I have this on my office shelf for funsies.) Yet, in orthodox Christianity (small “o”) over the centuries between the death of Jesus Christ and now, the representation of Him (not necessarily the artistic one) theologically and liturgically has remained steadied in Christianity.

Of course, this is not the primary concern of Historical Jesus quests. Instead, they have sought to uncover (not deconstruct) the actual historical figure from amid the tattered depictions in the primary source documents: the Gospels and New Testament.

Jesus Christ is unique from Santa Claus in that there is an established corpus of literature that still remains as the sources for understanding how He was received and understood by His first followers. While the latest developments in scholarship showing the early veneration of Jesus by these followers is not entirely relevant to this discussion, it does bear some influence on how we understand the Gospels depictions. The Santa of faith relies almost entirely on translated traditions and oral transmissions of his story across 16, or so, centuries with varying depictions. The Jesus of history relies on a set of documents written within a generation, or two, of His death by both eyewitnesses and devoted followers.

With the evolution, or translation, of Santa Claus, we see a figure who entirely loses the original image between his fourth century historical life and his present day depictions. Gone is any attachment with a Catholic Bishop from the Middle East. Only visible is the overweight, bearded Scandinavian bestower of gifts from atop a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer…and Rudolph. The present day image of Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the fourth century St Nicholas.

Yet the present day Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, is very much in line with the Historical Jesus. He remains ensconced in His Second Temple era amid struggling Jewish socio-political identity. A prophet and rabbi who came into this world through miraculous means (even if this is disputed by present day scholars) and died on a Roman crucifixion stake, still is found to be as Jewish today as He was in the middle first century representations. Though some have attempted to understand Jesus in their present milieu or through a lens of theological liberation, the orthodox Jesus of History remains settled in the Gospel depictions of Himself.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is very much taken out of his original historical figure, the Historical Jesus that we know today looks very much like the first century Jewish messianic figure who is presented in the Gospel witnesses. As these Gospel authors are either eyewitnesses or relying on eye witnesses testimony, their unique purpose for writing and framing the actions of Jesus Christ still present a figure who is faithful to the historical figure that lived and died between sixty and forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jesus of history that we have been able to recover aligns closely with characteristics of the Jesus of faith that has been venerated and celebrated in the liturgies and worship celebrations of the Church and churches since the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Regardless of where we stand on other issues around Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels still stands as a historically faithful representation that has stood the test of time. Unlike the Santa Claus of faith, the Jesus of history remains attached to the historical, first century Palestinian Jew who lived among the tumultuous times of the late Second Temple period.

We can be thankful that instead of a benevolent saint who merrily grants wishes and bestows gifts to children, the Jesus of history is one who came into this world for a purpose and can be seen in the passages of Holy Christian Scripture as a savior who is given for the world for all days.