I just finished reading a really fascinating novella, written in the 1960's, entitled Behold the Man. This Nebula Award-winning sci-fi fantasy, authored by Michael Moorcock, poses the question "Which came first: Jesus the man or Jesus the myth?" Now, before I lose some of our readers too quickly, let me point out that we are using the term myth here in the sense of "a truth that speaks to a deeper understanding of our human identity." Moorcock's story follows Karl Glogauer, a Jew in name only, who travels back in time from the year 1970 to the year 28 A.D. in search of the historical Jesus. Glogauer is determined to prove to his psychiatrist girlfriend that Jesus was more than just a patchwork of myths that birthed a religion. He does eventually find Jesus, and to his shock discovers (spoiler alert!) that he is so mentally challenged that all he is able to do is repeat his name over and over. Glogauer is devastated. How is it possible that this imbecile is the instigator of the Christian movement? He realizes he has only one choice -- to live out the life of Jesus himself and make the myth a reality. And so he begins playing out the major events of the gospel stories (sometimes inadvertently) knowing all along that they are pushing him headlong toward an agonizing death at the hands of the Romans.
Would it surprise you to know that at the time the book was first published it received good reviews in both the Jewish and Catholic press (and a few death threats for the author from folks in Texas)? Many saw it as a speculative take on what it truly means to "follow the way of Jesus." How many of us would really be willing to enact the actual path of the Jesus story, knowing where it would end up?
And I'm curious about one other thing. What do you suppose would happen if you asked your youth "What if it turned out that the man Jesus never existed? What if the story and all it says about God is absolute "truth" but the historical details are less than accurate? Would you still be a Christian? What if the real point of the gospels (and I think you could really make this argument for Mark's gospel) is not to point us toward the man, but rather to encourage us to walk the path that the man walks? How important is it to know which came first, the man or the myth?