Karen Armstrong’s view of Jesus Christ

We know very little about the historical Jesus, since all our information comes from the texts of the New Testament, which were not primarily concerned with factual accuracy. (Karen Armstrong on p. 81 of The Case for God.)

Case for GodIn my last post, I summarized Karen Armstrong’s view of God and religion. One item that was of particular interest to me was her view of Jesus Christ. No other religion in her book gets the debunking she gives Christianity. (This also serves as a sort of counter point to the Believing Scholars point of view as discussed here.)

In her view, Jesus, for reasons lost in history, was crucified by the Romans only to have his disciples have “visions” that convinced them he had been raised from the dead. (p. 82) The first Christians were, of course, thoroughly Jewish which she believes had no intentions of founding a new religion, though she admits they took the “highly unusual” step of converting gentiles. (p. 82) This eventually lead to Paul (and probably others) belief that the mixed Jewish and Gentile congregations were the first fruits of a “new Israel.” Using Midrashic techniques, these early Christians reinterpreted the Old Testament to contain prophecies — never originally intended — of a future redeemer who would be crucified and rise from the dead. She uses 1 Cor 1:23 to prove that these reinterpretations were often considered scandalous.

However, she asserts, “this was not simply a clever exercise in public relations. Jews had long realized that all religious discourse was basically interpretive. [Consistent with her view of the ancient God being a non-literal symbol of 'being itself.'] They had always looked for new meaning in the ancient texts…” (p. 83) She backs this point of view up with Luke’s story of the disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus found in Luke 24:13-31. In this story, the mysterious man that turns out to be Jesus “[starts] with Moses… expounding ‘the full message’ of the prophets…” which causes the scriptures to be “opened” to them. This “opening” would bring them fresh new insight, though perhaps only for a moment – just as Jesus had vanished from them. (p. 84) She strongly emphasizes this story for another reason: it has Jesus vanishing in thin air which, to her, suggests a mere vision, not a bodily resurrection. [1] As Armstrong asserts throughout her whole book, “like any mythos, this would make no sense unless it was put into practice.”

Armstrong insists that the true and original message of Jesus was, just like ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, really about (as she interprets in the ancient hymn recorded in Philippians 2:6-11) about ‘self-emptying.” In Armstrong’s view, Jesus certainly never intended to set Himself up as unique Son of God.

Even though Paul and the evangelists all called Jesus ‘son of God,’ they were not making divine claims for him. They would have been quite shocked by this idea. For Jews, a ‘Son of God’ was a perfectly normal human being who had been raised to special intimacy with God and had been given a divine mandate. …indeed, the scriptures saw all Israelites as the ‘sons of God’ in this sense. In the gospels, Jesus called God his ‘father,’ but he made it clear that God was the father of his disciples too.” (using Matt 7:11 as her proof text.) (p. 85)

Armstrong also believes that “no Jewish reader” would have understood the story of the virgin birth literally. She suggests, as proof of this, that the Hebrew bible is full of unusual conceptions as a motif. [2] And since only Matt and Luke mention the virgin birth, she deduces that “the other New Testament writers do not appear to have heard of it.” (p. 85-86)

If the virgin birth was only a means of figuratively suggesting the non-unique divine sonship of Jesus, it was not the only means. She points out that in Romans 1:4 that Paul believed (in her view anyhow) Jesus was not “‘designated’ the ‘son of God’ [until] his resurrection” [3] whereas Mark thought Jesus received his commission at his baptism being “‘adopted’ by Yahweh” at that event. (p. 86)

Armstrong’s view of Jesus miracles is that they ‘probably reflect the disciples’ understanding of these events after the resurrection apparitions.” (p. 89)  She does not deny the existence of events that would have seen rather miraculous to the ancient pre-science era. Indeed, going to a priest instead of a healer given the poor quality of their healers.


[1] “This story [luke] also shows how the early Christians understood Jesus’ resurrection. They did not have a simplistic notion of his corpse walking out of the tomb. Henceforth, as Paul had made clear, they would no longer know Jesus “in the flesh” but would find him in one another, in scripture, and in the ritual meals they ate together.” (p. 84)

[2] For example, Isaac is born when Abraham was ninety.

[3] TT (a liberal scholar at FPR) made the same argument here.

2 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong’s view of Jesus Christ

  1. “Armstrong insists that the true and original message of Jesus was, just like ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, really about (as she interprets in the ancient hymn recorded in Philippians 2:6-11) about ‘self-emptying.’ In Armstrong’s view, Jesus certainly never intended to set Himself up as unique Son of God.”

    Why is it that most of the ‘scholars’ I’ve seen that have claimed that Jesus didn’t claim to be the Messiah of the Jewish tradition have latched on the the idea that he was somehow teaching Buddhist teachings. I mean that would require his disciples to be complete and total fools to have misunderstood his teachings to the point that nothing in the New Testament looks like the core principles of the Buddhist/Hindu traditions.

    So where does this come from?

  2. S.A.M.S.

    So much to think, so little time to say it.

    Yes, I’ve researched this a bit now because I was curious about the same thing.

    I guess, I could summarize their point of view (I think accurately) as starting with the assumption that the disciples must be wrong because they believed in the resurrection and in a God-man, both of which they do not believe are possibilities.

    Given that starting assumption, they then look through the Biblical evidence for support of that view. What they find is that the assertions of being a God-man become sparser and less straightforward the further you go back, though to be frank, they are in even the most ancient sources.

    Also, they like to point out that the assertions of a bodily resurrection are made in the original version of Mark, but that the actual resurrection account itself is missing in the oldest manuscript. (It ends with an angel declare Jesus is risen.)

    They then decide that since those two stories ‘reduce’ with time (going backward) that the best explanation that fits their assumed solution is that Jesus must not have actually taught he was a God-man and that the resurrection did not happen. (Suprise! Exactly the starting assumption!) The assumption being that if we had even older documents then presumably (so goes the logic) it would weaken even more until those claims would disappear.

    It seems to me that there are a significant number of other possibilities here to explain the ‘reduction’ effect. For example, Jesus didn’t just introduce everyone to the idea that He was the Son of God, he let is slowly come to them. Why wouldn’t we assume the earlier accounts of Jesus would match this approach?

    Also, there is just no denying that every single document in existence, plus Q (which is just a hypothesis), all contain statements about the unique divinity of Jesus. Thus all the evidence in documentary sources — literally all of it! — does not support their point of view. Had not a resurrection and a nature of God been at stake, no sane scholar would take an approach where they assume that all of the existing documents are wrong and that what is right is not found in any documents at all.

    Also, they never address the more obvious option: perhaps Jesus was insane or a megalomaniac. So he really did teach he was God, he was just factually wrong. This hypothesis avoids the problem of the resurrection or the idea that God is literal, but it also fits the sources better. So why ignore this possibility?

    It seems to me that the only answer here is that going around telling believing Christians that your God was probably an insane man isn’t likely to win converts to their point of view. So starting with the assumption that Jesus was misquoted seems the better political choice and thus must be true.

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