The American Christ

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Although German scholarship led the way in the attempt to discover the “real, historical Jesus” behind the Gospel narratives, Americans were not far behind, and a controversy over Jesus played a role in the politics of the young Republic. Tom Paine started out as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776) inspired the Declaration of Independence, and his magnificent exhortation in The Crisis raised morale during the war. But Paine’s popularity in America declined dramatically, first when he became involved with anticlerical radicals during the French Revolution in the early 1790s and then when his book The Age of Reason poured scorn over orthodox Christianity. The Gospel story, said Paine, “has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it,” starting with the Virgin’s conception: “Were any girl that is now with child to say, and even to swear it, that she was gotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not. Why, then, are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where?” Paine’s principal target was the miracle stories. He praised Jesus as a good man and a moral teacher, but not as the Son of God: “He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before...it has not been exceeded by any.”

To judge Jesus simply as a notable historical figure, as though he were just another man, was—and still is—a blasphemy in the eyes of many Americans, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Last Temptation of Christ. Even a hundred years later Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine as a “filthy little atheist.” When Paine returned to America from France in 1802 he was no longer a hero, and the new President, Thomas Jefferson, took a risk in greeting Paine cordially and openly.

Jefferson himself was under political attack at the time from the opposition Federalist party, which tried to undermine his political support by accusing him of infidelity to the Christian faith. In an effort to reassure his colleagues that such accusations were groundless, Jefferson wrote A Syllabus of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and followed it up the next year with The Philosophy of Jesus . Rather than speculate in his own words about Jesus, Jefferson simply went through the New Testament, snipped out the passages he approved of, and glued them together in columns, binding the resulting sheets together. Like Paine, Jefferson minimized supernatural elements; he criticized the evangelists for including so much implausible material in their stories and claimed he could differentiate the true words of Jesus from the additions of later narrators.

Whereas Paine had published his notorious works widely, Jefferson kept this book and his later The Life and Morals of Jesus (1820) within a small circle of acquaintances. Despite his admiration for the man Jesus, Jefferson could hardly have allayed the suspicions of the Federalists about his orthodoxy by publishing them. He believed that Jesus’ life and its moral example were of more significance than his death and resurrection. He also shared Paine’s opinion that Jesus should be compared with the classical Greek philosophers: “Epictetus and Epicurus give us laws for governing ourselves...Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others.”

The pace of critical study of the New Testament increased after 1835 with the publication in Germany of David Strauss’s compendious Life of Jesus. Strauss argued that the Gospels should not be considered historical documents, to be judged historically accurate or faulty. Instead they should be understood as religious myths. While Strauss wrote a heavy and indigestible book for theologians, his French contemporary Ernest Renan wrote a more approachable and romantic biography, The Life of Jesus, in 1863. It became an enormous best seller throughout Europe and America. Renan presented Jesus as a lover of nature, and he speculated lengthily on Jesus’ thoughts and feelings. The publication of Renan’s biography marked the birth of a new subgenre of religious fiction: imaginative novels and biographies of Jesus, filling in the true significance of his life.