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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?