Monday, October 26, 2009

The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived?

in my facebook COEXIST forum, this question was asked and i responded:

i think the guys from Weezer are. after all, they have the song with the title of this thread. however, it's on their red album and it sucked and that discounts that.

I'd go with Jesus.

and what about women? who is the great woman who ever lived? my money is on Catherine of Sienna or Gloria Steinem.
which a response came that:
I hate to vote against Jesus (I do not wish to be insulting to those who hold him in high regard), but as a man I would say he accomplished nothing, and as a god, the term underachiever comes to mind.

Paul was much more influential than Jesus. His writings and those of his followers Mark and Luke comprise a great part, perhaps the majority of the New Testement and transform the biblically recorded works of Jesus from insignificant to not only miraculous but the path to eternal life.

I don't know about the greatest but given Christianity's affects on western civilization, Paul certainly has to be nominated as the most influential person ever.
aside from the fact that this person views Christ as a failure (aren't there scriptures that speak to this? ;-)) there is a good point in the fact that Paul is oft quoted more than Christ in many of our churches. It is my opinion that the more conservative the church, the more you hear Paul. this has been my experience and i could be way off here...

i've been thinking about this question for a while and wonder at the rubric we're using. and since Jason got me reading a certain philosopher again, i had to ask "are we using what Nietzsche called "The master morality" or the "slave morality"?"

Slave morality: the morality created by oppressed people in order to overturn the prevailing values of those in power. Nietzche raises up the example of the early Christians and their new way of thinking that opposed the morality of their Roman masters.

According to Nietzche, morality has never been created through reason, or appeals to civility, or practicality or any other traditional method described by philosophers. instead those in power decide what's good. this is esp. true in the earlies moralities where aristocrats and kings held all the real power in society and dictated what was important in life.

"It was 'the good' themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and est. themselves and their actions as good, that is of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common, and plebeian."

Master Morality: include power, beauty, strength, and fame, in other words WORLDLY attributes and partly because the attributes enabled them to stay in power. like Homer's Iliad claims Achilles is the best because he's the most powerful and strongest. In Greek Society, it was the heroes that were the best.

so for me then, the greatest men and women who live are those who resist and follow a slave morality. Gandhi, MLK Jr, Jesus, Paul, St Teresa, Rosa Parks, and many others. those are who we need to hold up as ppl to follow vs. what advertising, government, and yes, even some religious leaders tell us.

to all those in the resistence: inform, infect, do what is unexpected: we are winning:


Ian said...

The biggest problem I have with assigning Jesus as an author of a 'slave morality' is that we know so little about what his actual program was.

We know, for example, that the gospel writers found themselves in various situations of compromise, from Mark in a post-destruction Hellenism to Matthew battling with nascent rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora, and so on.

One has to be clear about what teachings, specifically, you ascribe to Jesus, what you reject (including that in other non-canonical gospels) and how that influences your judgment of his program.

One could say, I guess, that the consensus Jesus of the third and fourth century (of the canonization process) when read back into a late first century epoch, was radical. But it is far from clear to me that the Jesus of the 4 gospels, in his actual early first century context, makes much political sense at all.

To the extent that we seem him as great, Jesus, as always, is an always perfect mirror. Everyone seems to see in him a better version of themselves. And it is through inherent narcissism coupled to a desire to improve oneself, that one finds Jesus the greatest ever human. To a right-wing fundamentalist he is the greatest because he exemplifies personal responsibility and moral probity. To a bleeding-heart liberal he is the most compassionate advocate of justice and equality. And so on.

Determining who the real Jesus is should come before these value judgments, otherwise you are really just saying that you (with a few tweaks) are the greatest human ever. Unfortunately, finding the real Jesus is a notoriously impossible task.

Luke said...

well, i didn't address what happens when the slave morality becomes the master morality...

"But it is far from clear to me that the Jesus of the 4 gospels, in his actual early first century context, makes much political sense at all."

really? there's a ton of politics in the gospels. we're taught to study the socio-historical settings of the gospel as well as the source and textual (which you bring up nicely in your comment). just check out my prof's post on this passage from Luke to use as an example:

as for Jesus as a mirror... i can see that. however, Jesus some how fits those and doesn't at the same time. there were times where he was inclusive and exclusive. he was rigid and flexible. political freedom fighter and religious reformer. i think this fits with many people who resist letting labels completely define them. but then, that's my understanding and i could just be mirroring again. but the feedback loop is established and just like mirrors reflecting on mirrors, what is fact and what is illusion blur and that's what makes up our reality.

Ian said...

"he was rigid and flexible. political freedom fighter and religious reformer. i think this fits with many people who resist letting labels completely define them"

Mmm, I'm getting a great picture of your character :)

"really? there's a ton of politics in the gospels."

Yes, my point was the politics reported in the gospels are a generation too late to be Jesus' politics.

Or, at least, the politics that has any claim on being a 'Slave Morality'. The statements of Jesus that are likely to be original have some political force, of course (all statements do), but the stuff we associate with a political position has the thumbprints of the gospel writers all over it.

"Just check out my prof's post on this passage from Luke to use as an example"

My point a fortiori. Look at that passage again in the light of who *Luke* was an why he was writing.

One can do hermeneutics with such texts, of course (and your prof's piece is as good as any other concerning that), but one can't make judgments about Jesus that way.

Unless one is willing to admit that the Jesus one finds great may not have existed. In which case we open up the question to fictional characters generally, and then I can think of many characters that beat Jesus.

Sabio Lantz said...

I've often wondered what it would be like to read Paul stripped of all the theological jargon but seeing beneath it to what effect (using religion in his case) he wanted to have in the Roman empire.

I agree with Ian that we would have to do this analysis with each individual writer. Then we would need to see how editors modified and chose texts of folks with different agendas to meet their present agendas. This is an approach done by Friedman who wrote "Who Wrote the Bible" where he discussed "J," "P," "E," and "D" Theory.

But you guys are a bit over my head -- I will enjoy the read.

Chris E said...

Jesus, Nietzche, post-destruction Hellenism, socio-historical settings, Weezer, narcissism, right-wing fundamentalism and bleeding heart liberalism all in one place. Good times.

Three things come to mind.

First - regardless of what is written, when, by whom, and to what end (all very important considerations, as you both observe) - something about this Jesus of Nazareth guy was so significant, something about his death/resurrection was so powerful, that a movement that SHOULDN'T have moved DID move, and moved fast, among those in the first couple-three generations of said event. I'm leaning on NT Wright heavily for this observation. Set aside what "Matthew" wrote or "Paul" or whomever for a moment, and consider that they inherited some aspects of these stories (as evidenced by how they cited them) from all over the place before canon became canon. Example - Paul's letter to the Romans was from afar, he had never been there, and it was among the first Christian writings that survived. It presupposed a bunch of people already there, with a (somewhat) compatible transformative gospel that he could at least tap into (if not completely confirm...though I bet there was difference) in order to make his rhetorical argument. At that time, in that context, pretty amazing.

Second - I'm wondering what the qualifications of "greatest" are here. Is it the impact they had while living and limited to that time frame? (Death/resurrection, in Jesus Christ's case) Is the impact limited to the bounds of their context, as if one could create a homogenous "context" in said argument? Does the person have to have actually existed (provably according to reasonable evidence). Does the person get the benefit of all history after them...including the contributions of countless theologians, monks, nuns, politicians, laypersons, priests, songwriters, wars, and cartographers? Cause if that's a definition, I think I'd have to go with Abraham...whether the guy was real or not. Seriously. Or Eve. Or Adam.

Third - My final observation is this. Slave morality or master morality is interesting.


Luke said...

"Mmm, I'm getting a great picture of your character :)"

yeah, i'm reading too much kirkegaard ;-) i'm existentialist by nature i think.

"Yes, my point was the politics reported in the gospels are a generation too late to be Jesus' politics."

it had to start somewhere. Jesus wasn't entirely original either, there were other resistence movements in Judaism at that time, like the Zealots and Essenes. and the culture was an oral one vs. our written one, which oft-times discounts the oral and claims "not accurate." however, these traditions are very much alive in first nations, african american, and pentacostal traditions just to name a few. the thumb prints of the speaker are all over it, but i think that leads one not to hold to a literal interp and that there is some objective truth in THESE words. the truth, as always, is transcendent and fluid and not formulaic.

Bart Erhman covers the historical and textual problems in "MisQuoting Jesus" which is a great read. this has lead me to the view that all history is revisionist. we have to figure out where we land, the line must be drawn somewhere in terms of what to believe and what ethic to follow.

and i'll affirm what Chris said, regardless of the historicity of the events and life of Christ, "something about this Jesus of Nazareth guy was so significant, something about his death/resurrection was so powerful, that a movement that SHOULDN'T have moved DID move, and moved fast, among those in the first couple-three generations of said event."

Luke said...

@ Chris "Or Eve."

good insights dude.

and yes, of course Eve is the coolest, she was the first to grow up!


Anonymous said...

The term 'slave morality' needs to be updated I think - to something like the impoverished classes or oppressed groups and the morality arising from those conditions of society without power. FYI, slaves don't exist much anymore - at least not in the West anyways.

I think Christianity most certainly comes from an oppressed group of people in Judaism - Jesus as their lead teacher (rabbi). The rest of the writings spring from this man's ideologys...including Pauls Christology to Gentile regions. This, would make Jesus the most influential person even in those early circles as all the writings revolve around what this figure meant to all aspects of early Christianity.

Personally I love the breadth of Jesus' teachings and what he seems to be wanting for humanity - along the lines of equality (dealing from the stances of the 'poor'). In this sense, this human services sense, he is quite astounding in his message - as recorded by a variety of writers.

This makes him amongst the greatest people that ever lived - since he seems to have inspired others with this message to greater measures of their own personal convictions in this arena...including King Jr, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Those are 3 names in and of themselves that should raise eyebrows about the greatest people that ever lived.

I think there is something about Jesus' message (as recorded in the gospels - forgo Paul for now) - that seems to care about the plight of the less fortunate on this planet...a concern we humans have carried forward until this day. We're always fighting for equality for some group or another - and this is tantamount to what Jesus taught...and what the early Acts community shared in. I think the inspiration this man has provided is quite enough for me to give him that nod.

Rightly so Christianity has it's share of vicious blemishes as we trace the history - but I am not those ideals trace back to someone so non-violent in stance as much as it traces back to the greed of the dynasties of the day covering themselves in religious duty to make some show for the people...similar to Christians blocking slavery, civil rights, or even gay rights.

Ian said...

Wow, I'd love to respond in depth and unpack lots of responses here. There's a goldmine of nerdy stuff.

"i'll affirm what Chris said, regardless of the historicity of the events and life of Christ"

Yes, this is a very valid theology, imho. It is a theology based on the late first century Christ, rather than the early first century Jesus.

"something about this Jesus of Nazareth guy was so significant, something about his death/resurrection was so powerful, that a movement that SHOULDN'T have moved DID move"

The context, spanning the first Jewish revolt, was an absolute tinder-box. It doesn't surprise me at all that a Christology was born in this time that took the Jewish world by storm, particularly in the face of the fall of Jerusalem. If not Jesus, then somebody else. Rabbinic Judaism is also born of this period, remember.

The earliest material we have is a non-historical Christology (the aramaic hymns). Then slightly later, before the fall, when Paul is writing, he is exclusively Christological.

It is only by Mark that we get information about Jesus personality and teaching. And that is post-fall or trans-fall and Mark is clearly writing in a Hellenic context.

So I think we're on dubious ground for claiming it was the unique and dramatic character of Jesus who was the prime impetus for the movement.

My (not at all original) view is that a spark of Christology (possibly one first mooted by Jesus) ignited in the identity crisis and angst of the run up to the Jewish revolt, that then got written back into the life and teachings of Jesus, based on the political needs of the gospel authors.

[I'm not saying we don't know anything Jesus really said, I'm still speaking specifically to his political and 'revolutionary' character.]

If it was the other way around, the best we can say is that there is no evidence for that, and the evidence we do have seems to run counter.

"There were other resistance movements at the time"

The same problem appears here. Clearly these movements were important for the gospel writers, but they seem to arrive with Mark. There is no evidence Jesus was in any way a resistance figure in authentic-Paul, is there?

Sabio Lantz said...

I must say, Ian makes a lot of sense !
It would probably make the conversation more interesting if we talked about Mormon scripture or the Mahabharata (Hindu) and analyzed the text and the historicity of the characters. We could then determine an agreed upon methodology and then return here for a more informed conversation. Just a thought.
Good chat guys, fun to listen to = thanx.

Ian said...

"It would probably make the conversation more interesting if we talked about Mormon scripture or the Mahabharata (Hindu) and analyzed the text and the historicity of the characters."

I know very little about the evolution of vast body of Hindu sacred texts (beyond the Wikipedia level, at least). I know a fair bit about the evolution of Baha'i, however, and that has stunning (sometimes uncanny) similarities to the early Jesus movement.

There is a very similar process of mythologization, of distancing the tradition from its cultural mileu (Islam in this case) and of writing biographical stories based on the anachronistic political needs of later generations.

In Baha'i within 2 generations the 'gospel' was taken out of the Islamic domain (partly through persecution) and there was a distinct program of westernization in the rewriting of the historical Baha'u'llah.

There are now 6 million Bahai's in the world, just over 100 years after Baha'u'llah's death. Clearly it isn't a fluke for a religion to get started at a huge rate and scatter / adapt quickly.

We could go through the same analysis for Scientology, Mormonism, the various sects arising from the Great Disappointment, Tenriyko, ISKON ("Hare Krisna") and probably lots more that I know less well.

The history of religious innovation shows us that Jesus didn't have to be special, and we're unlikely to have a clear picture of what he really did and said.

"We could then determine an agreed upon methodology and then return here for a more informed conversation."

One of the core tenets of historical criticism is that one's methods should apply independent of the text one is studying.

Historical criticism should be functionally agnostic or else it is hermeneutics. There's nothing wrong with hermeneutics, of course, or theology generally, but it is a different thing.

Some scholars I've heard distinguish between Jeshua and Jesus Christ, to make it clear when they're switching from history to theology.

Luke said...

"There's a goldmine of nerdy stuff."

haha, that's why we blog, right?

Mark is my fave gospel and I really enjoy the synoptics... however i like the incarnational aspect John and Paul bring. i don't think we'll ever get to the "true" nature of christ but must pick our christology from a variety of readings. i think i'm most comfortable with the liberationist model. i think Paul uses this in a way as he feels the freedom that is provide to him through Christ... but he does have a different take on the deal.

i was wondering if you could clarify the difference between early and late first century christian belief? that'd be helpful.

but yeah man, you're make'n a lot of sense i really enjoyed scope'n your blog, although math and i mix as well as oil and water :-)

Ian said...

NTMath: I got stuck doing my 'big' analysis, and never got round to posting the results. Hopefully I will at the end of the year, when I have some time, and finish off that blog. I don't want to blog there continuously. I keep intended to do some real blogging, but I'm super busy.


As for timeline it might help to think of it as if it were last century.

Imagine Jesus is born before the first world war. He is killed during the great depression. Imagine the first records anyone has about him are some letters from the 50s from someone who claims to have met Jesus directly, raised from the dead. He doesn't say much about Jesus (no biographical information at all), he focuses exclusively on his death and resurrection (Paul never claims to know anything about Jesus other than his revelation and the communion story, in fact he brags about his ignorance at the start of Gal).

Now, on with our parallel time-line. Towards the end of the trauma of the vietnam war, we get the first book about Jesus's life, and in it Jesus is predicting war and destruction. In it Jesus dies, but the author doesn't describe his resurrection.

In the late 70s and early 80s two more books come out. They embelish the story, add (different) accounts of the birth, add (different) resurrection stories and describe how Jesus was constantly railing against the commie threat.

Finally a couple of years ago a fourth book came out that was even more grandiose and had Jesus claiming he was God and talking about how evil terrorism was.

There is as much political difference between Jesus's Jerusalem and Matthews dispersed community, or Mark in the diaspora, or John in open conflict with local Jewish leaders.

So based on a set of gospels with those kind of anachronisms, it is tough to say much at all about what the great-depression-era guy actually thought about politics.

Greg Carey said...

I'm not so certain of that historical critical, "every Jesus is our construction of him" position. Every EVERYTHING is our construction. So one must be pragmatic, using categories other people can understand. What was it about Jesus that got him killed? It certainly wasn't his slave ethos, though he taught servanthood. It might have been his confrontation with power in Jerusalem.

Sabio Lantz said...

Didn't lots of Jews get killed back then for the slightest offense. In Mao's China, the slightest badmouthing by a neighbor could put you in the gallows. You would not believe how that changed mainland Chinese folks to be completely different people than the Taiwanese (well, among other policies). Anyway, I digressed, who knows what Judas told the authorities (if we are free to doubt the sanctified stories). Mark makes it look like even Jesus was taken off guard by his execution right next to other Jews in the way of Roman rules.

Ian said...

greg, sabio,

Yes, I think it probably wasn't that hard to get yourself killed. We know that very many did.

Jesus rolls up at passover, when (by various estimates) Jerusalem has swolen from maybe 60,000 to 400,000 Jews. The romans decamp from their nice, cool little city by the sea to march up into the hills and be hemmed into fort Antonia on the temple mount for a week, because Passover is, after all, the celebration of the Jews humbling a great empire and winning their freedom.

In that climate, if you're Pilate, you don't think much about publicly executing anyone that even smells of sedition. Pilate is not a man to pander to potential revolutionaries.

So Jesus makes some fuss, he gets talked about as a Messiah (self-proclaimed or otherwise, it doesn't matter). Messiah is a direct reference to David, of course, God's anointed. Which if you're Roman means that here's someone in the absolute powder-keg of Passover Jerusalem claiming, or being proclaimed a New King of Israel.

Doesn't take much to see why Jesus might have been killed.

Of course, by the end of the gospel writing period, the gospel writers are battling against the Jews, so the Passion story migrates to be about 'the Jews' killing Jesus, diminishing the Romans to unwilling pawns.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Ian
Or perhaps Jesus spoke of the "Son of Man" and was not referring to himself -- some folks see that as a possibility too, right.
So just speaking of anyone as an overthrowing Messaih would be someone to be silenced. Or maybe he was reported as hanging out with prostitutes or corrupting tax collectors. It might not have be the self-declaring as messiah -- that claim may have come after his death.

I loved the image of pissed off, displaced, hot , out-of-town roman soldiers holed up in a fort -- nice.

Luke said...

Ian: I get what you're say'n now. and yeah, i'd stick to a Markian view.

Greg: "It certainly wasn't his slave ethos, though he taught servanthood. It might have been his confrontation with power in Jerusalem."

would his confronting power being a showing of his slave ethos? a tearing back of his hidden transcript and a revealing of the powers that be and their self-interest?

Ian: "Jesus, diminishing the Romans to unwilling pawns."

yeah.. i always rejected that!

Ian said...


Yes, the Son of Man language (which is evoking Daniel) is pretty apocalyptic. In recent years it has been pretty well argued that the apocalyptic veneer of Jesus may have been added later, and that the more reliable words of Jesus aren't apocalyptic.

It may be, then, that when Jesus talks of the Son of Man in the third person, those sayings are more likely original than the bits of narrative where he associates himself with the Son of Man, which are an attempt by later gospel writers to interpret Jesus as an apocalyptic figure.

But I think the signal is pretty weak in comparison to the noise at that point.

> Ian: I get what you're say'n now.
> and yeah, i'd stick to a Markian
> view.

Why Mark? He's the earliest, but still c. 40 years later, and still noticeably anachronistic. Why not "I've researched all the evidence" St Luke?

Luke said...

"Why not "I've researched all the evidence" St Luke?"

constantly reading and revisiting and revising. ya make me wanna pick up Ehrman again and give it another go. so while try'n to do all this, can't deny that i have a fave ;-)

so i'm still on the evidence trail, and there's A LOT of it!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I like the idea of Jesus as holding a slave ethos when his contemporaries at the institutional level were buying into the master morality (although I agree with SVS that the language needs updating). Luke did a movie review of Defiance and that stuck out for me. The Jewish people have long been resistence fighters and I like Jesus' model the best. As for how we can know him and what is considered valid, that is all fine and good, but like Socrates we only have a few sources. The points Ian is bringing up almost don't matter to me.

Ian said...


Yes, absolutely.

You can base your faith, or theological position on two things.

1) On the Jesus Christ revealed through scripture and tradition (in protestantism tradition is normally up to the end of the 4th C only). In that case it doesn't matter a fig how the text got written or what the historical person of Jesus was like or said. All that matters is the revealed Christ.

2) On the historical man Jeshua. In that case historical criticism is crucial in reconstructing him and his authentic statements, peeling away the later layers of theology and interpretation.

As long as you choose, both are reasonable positions to start your theology. I think there's only a problem if you do 1, but convince yourself you're really doing 2. They are not the same, but in my experience Christianity is often preached as if they were.

If you ask who is the greatest man ever, then you have the same choice.

If you choose 1, then I think you need to put Jesus up against other characters. Is Jesus greater than Lord Krishna, or the Buddha, for example? Or is Jesus greater than Superman, or Gandalf?

If you choose 2, then you have the very real problem of working out what the man Jeshua actually said. As we've seen, as far as politics go, this is extraordinarily different.

What's disingenuous is to pretend that you're making the second choice, while actually making the first. If you put the Jesus Christ of Christian tradition against historical humanity, then of course he's going to win. Just as Superman would win pitted against the historical humans who've ever lived.

Luke said...


wonderful explaination!

"Is Jesus greater than Lord Krishna, or the Buddha, for example? Or is Jesus greater than Superman, or Gandalf?"

never thought of it this way... Buddha has a heck of a lot more material, include'n a supposed autobiography! so historically, Jesus is an underdog.

as a fictional character, i think Neo. but Neo is also based on Jesus... freaky huh? ;-) Superman is also Jewish, like Jesus. and like Jesus has also been resurrected a few times (both in movies and in print).

good points.

Anglican Boy said...


I agree with Luke, those are good points. I have choosen Jesus and felt that I am in a personal relationship with him. So he is not a fictional character, even though I have no idea which gospel passages are verifiable. Maybe this is a "both/and" situation that Luke talks about a lot. Jesus is a historical character that has been fictionalized as the ancient concept of history did not operate under the myth of objectivity ours does.

So just like being "100% Human and Divine" as my tradition teaches, he is also fiction and real. I would pick him over any other character real or imagined.

Luke said...


i think i'm with you on that one. took me a couple days to get the full impact of what you're saying. good stuff man.

Al said...

"Paul is oft quoted more than Christ in many of our churches." This is rather off topic to most of the other comments, but I want to make a comment about it. I think the conservative chunk of the church would rather preach about theology than Jesus, so Paul preaches better than the gospels. Perhaps it's because Jesus is so black and white about stuff (like love your neighbor) and that doesn't go over so well in a middle-class, capitalistic society that doesn't want to admit that we should love the poor, gays, or whoever else we manage to be treating badly. So, instead of teaching people to follow Christ's example, we preach against stuff, and Paul gives us lots of fuel.