Jesus Is Missing—Again

“The Jesus you’re looking for…is not here.” Latin caption from a painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1450–52. Florence (Full citation below).

Last week, the website Debunking Christianity posted a note on the arrival of the latest Oxford Classical Dictionary. Long revered by classicists as their “Bible”—the previous iteration was subtitled “The Ultimate Reference Work on the Classical World”—the 4th edition attracted attention for leaving out an important entry. Somewhere in-between the mythological hero Aeneas and the west-wind, Zephyr, there should probably have been an entry for a person who can boast 2.2 billion followers today: “Jesus.”

Sloppy oversight, or intellectually justified? The dons did limit their liability by including an entry for “Christianity,” so I guess that means address all comments and concerns to the editors of the 5th Edition. If only it were that simple.

The issue here is not whether Jesus existed. Little Romulus and Remus, patron saints of my favorite soccer team, merited a place of their own, and they’re the “mythical founders of Rome.” Even a comically-abbreviated entry for “Jesus” could have read as follows: “Jesus was executed—or, if you prefer, ‘stories about his execution place that event’—under the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, in the official Roman province of Judaea.” If the Editors want to use that in the next edition, by all means, cut and paste. Royalty free. But to claim that “Jesus [was] not classical” simply doesn’t add up.

Cutting “Jesus” out of the classical dictionary is a lost opportunity. What we’re dealing with here is something much more than just “Did Jesus really exist?” The issue goes directly to how, when, and even if scholars should acknowledge the needs of the wider public in their own highly-academic endeavors. While this kind of “public humanities” can be a hire-wire act that brings heckles from the peanut gallery (for some of the challenges, see Paul Dicken’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education), it is necessary and it is urgent. The policy debates we see scrolling before us everyday—in the news, in our news feeds—have real world outcomes that affect real people.

For starters, many people who don’t write dictionaries for a living are extremely interested in Jesus’ life and death. Some them also have a, um, rather curious notion of Christian origins. Goggle the phrase “How Christianity Started.” Somewhere on the first page you’ll find a four-panel drawing. Above the title there will be several scenes showing an empty tomb, crucifixes on Golgotha, Jesus preaching, and a mass of people spreading the news. The captions say things: “Christ was killed publicly,” “Christ rose from a public tomb publicly,” and “Christ publicly showed himself to the public.” Spot the argument (“publicly…publicly…publicly”!)? Lots of people saw Jesus.

There’s a second cartoon to drive home the point. This one’s called “How Other Religions Started.” In other religions (cue the scary music from your favorite political smear campaign) one person had a “private dream about God.” Or, “one person told everyone what he saw.” Ooh, I wonder who that could be? The history here is tendentious, but the message is supposed to be clear. Christianity is the only “real religion” because it was the most historically “verifiable.” Everybody else? Thanks for playing.

Now I’m sure the team behind the Oxford Classical Dictionary didn’t have this Islamophobic cartoon on their mind when they doled out their writing assignments. But I wonder what would happen if the two groups—the Oxford editors and the Christians who have been circulating this drawing—ever found themselves at the same pub, sharing a drink? In the one corner, you’d have a highly-educated committee that has made the executive decision to omit the “Jesus” entry from their “ultimate reference work.” In the other, you’d have an faith community convinced that Jesus’ existence is the very detail which elevates Christianity above “other religions.” Would they have anything in common at all?

Those of us who study antiquity need to be engaging the public on these topics, not standing in the corner with our arms crossed.

Of course, talking to a wider audience means more than publishing our jargon on-line. As any Ph.D. knows, especially one like me who grew up attending family holidays with plumbers and pharmacists, jazz musicians and middle school teachers, sometimes you have to get a little creative to hold the thread of the dinner conversation.

Public writing is like that, too. The goal is to figure out how to share our ideas with people in a way that meets them where they are. That’s true whether we’re talking to people who read cartoons about “How Christianity Started” or challenging them with pieces like this one. Either way, those of us who study Rome for a living can’t afford to be shunning “Jesus” right now. Our work matters to more people than we might think.

Note on the image: This painting by Fra Angelico appears on a cabinet, now in the Museo di S. Marco in Florence. Called the Armadio degli Argenti, it depicts several scenes from Jesus’ life and death. This image depicts the women at the tomb. Image citation: Wikimedia Commons.

Jesus, Publications, Rome