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What Was Unique about the Life of Jesus: Summary of a Class Presentation

Here is a brief summary of my class yesterday:

Jesus’ life was virtually guaranteed to be forgotten. He was born in rural Galilee, far from the centers of power. His ministry lasted for as little as one year. For that brief time he walked the countryside, avoiding the cities, and talked mostly to peasants. He did go to the city of Jerusalem, but was summarily executed there as a criminal. He wrote no books, had no wealth, knew no powerful people, never traveled more than a hundred miles from home, led no army, and was not a statesman.

And yet his life has had more impact than any life in history. How could that possibly be? What allowed a life that possessed none of the usual means of influence to be the most influential life ever lived?

My conjecture is that it was because his life was the pure reflection of a higher truth. I see this as having two parts. First, he himself embodied a higher truth. He seemed to have set aside the normal personal interests and to have disappeared into a larger ideal. We all know that this is a rare thing. It is not the way it works down here. People are almost universally motivated by the normal personal concerns. This goes for influential people as well. They are supposed to be serving us in some form or another, but we know that when it comes down to it, it’s not about public service; it’s mostly about their careers. For this reason, when someone really does transcend the normal considerations of self-interest and truly unites with a higher ideal, we are moved and inspired. We know it is rare.

Yet however much they as people have joined with that higher ideal, they still seem subject to the random winds of chance. They are like a running back in a football game—they only have so much power to contend against the huge forces that are arrayed against them. And so even though they may make some progress on behalf of us all, they usually don’t gain too many yards before they get squashed.

This leads to the second part: Jesus seems to not only have embodied a higher truth, but unlike other examples of that idea, he seems to have been a conduit for that same truth. It appeared to be able to flow through him as an actual force that could impress itself onto the events of time and space. We see this, of course, in his miracles, and we see it in the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection.

Let’s look more closely at the final events of his life, which in my mind are the most obvious and extreme example of a higher truth actually flowing through him and around him.

First, the crucifixion is an example of the typical fate of someone who has united with a higher ideal—those people often get killed. Yet the resurrection is a dramatic reversal of that typical end, the kind of miraculous reversal that just doesn’t happen in real life, and that quite possibly has never happened, at least to that extreme degree.

Second, the crucifixion and resurrection were a remarkable demonstration of Jesus’ message. Based on his sayings, that message can be summarized in this way: “The world assaults you, but no matter what it does to you, God’s love and care can lift you up and make the world’s assaults seem insignificant, and can even reverse their effects.” This, of course, looks very much like the crucifixion and resurrection. The message can sound pie-in-the-sky, yet somehow the end of Jesus’ life was turned into a demonstration of it, proving that it can work in real life, even in the most extreme case.

Third, the crucifixion and resurrection transformed Jesus’ followers, first taking them apart and then putting them back together in a new way. In the process, they became the vehicles of his message, who were able then to take it out to the ends of the earth, with many or most of them eventually dying for the cause. These events, in other words, lit the fuse that resulted in Christianity’s explosion in the world.

Finally, there is the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud, of course, is the purported burial cloth of Jesus. It contains two kinds of images—a faint image of a crucified man, front and back, and a collection of more distinct bloodstains, corresponding to the wounds Jesus reportedly received in his execution. The Shroud was carbon-dated in 1988 to the middle ages, but that carbon-dating has since been invalidated, because it dated a sample from a single, badly damaged corner of the Shroud that is chemically unlike the rest of the Shroud (and was apparently patched in much later). The bloodstains are so medically accurate that they cannot be faked, and the image itself has never been explained. It is not a painting. Rather, it is some kind of change in the linen fibers themselves, or perhaps in a thin starch coating around each fiber.

The most interesting thing about the Shroud’s image is that it is like a photographic negative—1800 years before photography was invented—so that a negative of it looks lifelike. But it is not a true photograph. Rather, it is a case where something emanated from the body that changed the cloth, so that the closer the body was to the cloth, the more image was left, and the farther away the body was, the less image was left. The image therefore contains 3D information, making it unlike any normal photograph in the world. Given this description, it is difficult to resist the notion that it is a snapshot of the resurrection.

The Shroud, as an apparently one-of-a-kind 3D photograph of the resurrection, leaving us a physical image to view and a scientific artifact to study, seems to be yet another case of that higher truth being able to reach into time and space and impress itself onto the physical world—this time onto Jesus’ own burial cloth.

All in all, the crucifixion and resurrection look like they were arranged to be the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ message and mission, in a number of ways. Yet the events of this world don’t work like that. They just happen, in spite of our best planning. In this case, though, the higher truth that operated through Jesus seems to have used time and space as a canvas for its own masterpiece.

In my view, then, the best explanation for how a man could walk around a small rural area, talking to peasants for a year, and yet leave the largest mark of any man in history is this notion that he was the agent of a higher truth—a truth that he personally embodied and that actually flowed through him and around him. It is the singular purity and power of that truth that holds our world captive.