Does it really matter if our miraculous story of Jesus is not the gospel truth?

`Perhaps it does not matter if the three kings, the shepherds and the angels gathered round the crib'

SOME ONCE thought that Jesus was a figment of the imagination, a fantasy figure like Osiris or Zeus. Now all sane people acknowledge that he actually existed. But what do we know about him? And anyway, does it really matter whether what the Church claims to have happened, from Mary's virgin birth to Jesus's resurrection from the dead, did happen?

Scrupulous, sceptical historians have raked and raked over the gospels for 200 years. First came the picture of Jesus as a good, liberal European. Then came Albert Schweitzer (yes, he of Bach and Lambarene fame). Schweitzer saw that the early lives of Jesus were written by people who looked down the long well of history and saw their own face reflected at the bottom. He realised that the world of the New Testament is strange, even alien to us, because dominated by eschatology, namely the belief that creation had come to its climax, that the end of all things was near. Amid all the changes and scholarly fashions since then, this fundamental insight has remained.

After Schweitzer, and particularly in the middle years of this century, scholars doubted whether we could know anything about the historical Jesus for certain, except that he lived and died. All that mattered was an existential encounter of faith. More recently, however, there has been a growing consensus that some things at least can be known with as much certainty as any other historical event.

First, that Jesus was a Jew who needs to be seen in the context of his time. He was a teacher and Galilean healer. Secondly, he proclaimed the beginning of God's long-expected transformation of human affairs (the Kingdom of God). Thirdly, he gathered around him a small group of companions who were to form the nucleus of the ingathering of the people of God in the new age that was about to dawn. Fourthly, he went out of his way to mix with and eat with those whom society as a whole marginalised. In doing this he taught that he was simply acting out God's search for the lost. Fifthly, he felt the tremors of his forthcoming death and interpreted it as a self-offering to bring in this realm of love.

Some would want to go much further than this minimalist account. Indeed historians of secular history often accuse New Testament scholars of being too severe and sceptical in their canons of truth.

What we also know is that the Christian movement got going in history on the basis that God had raised Jesus from the dead, thereby vindicating both him and his message. Christians believed that in some decisive sense the new age had indeed been inaugurated, not for the world as a whole to see but in the intimate relationship of Jesus to the one he called Father and the extension of this in the communal lives of those who followed his way of love and were filled by his spirit.

What still remains as the great mystery is what actually happened between the death of Jesus and the conviction of his first followers that he had been raised to a universal contemporaneity. Evidence can be adduced in favour of this belief but here, more than anywhere, we are in the realm of faith: faith which will be formed - or lost - partly in response to the picture of Jesus presented by the gospels, partly by our experience of the Christian community and our own spiritual insights, and partly by our whole understanding of what God might or might not be like.

The gospels are not biography and every line of them is written upon the assumption that the one described in them is the agent of human salvation, raised from the dead and through his spirit living in his followers. They contain legend, myth, poetry, sublime teaching and stories of amazing happenings as well as more humdrum "facts". From all this, the picture emerges of a man with a mission from the one he called "Abba, father", to whom he related intimately and with total trust and who calls into question most of the values by which we live: the pursuit of power, prestige, money, fame and pleasure.

In his teaching he literally turns the world upside down, for the first will be last and the last first. By these standards all will be judged. The message is totally uncompromising. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

Does it matter that any of this was actually said and done, that what the gospels record as happening did happen? Perhaps it does not matter whether or not Lazarus was raised from the dead because the fourth gospel tells that story in order to enact the truth "I am the resurrection and the life"; that Jesus can raise us from both physical death and the spiritual death of self-absorption. Perhaps it does not matter whether or not Mary actually said "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy will" because such receptivity and loving response to divine grace is fundamental to the whole Christian life, of which Mary is an archetype.

Perhaps it does not even matter whether the three kings, the shepherds and the angels actually gathered around the crib of the Christ child. What does matter is the claim that God himself has taken our humanity; that he encounters us in this particular person, living at a particular time in a particular culture.

From a Christian standpoint, God is not a puppeteer pulling and pushing the strings of human existence. He has chosen to change human life from the inside, by entering the flux of history and putting himself at the mercy of events. This includes putting himself at the mercy of historians and all of us in every generation who have to interpret and evaluate those events.

Some of the gospels can be responded to as moral and spiritual truth, setting light to the question of historical fact. But there are some foundational events whose claim to historical truth cannot be fudged. We might wish it were otherwise; but it makes a crucial difference, whether or not those foundational events occurred.

The author is the Bishop of Oxford

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower