When Mel Gibson responded to critics of his blockbuster The Passion of the Christ by saying they had a "problem with the four Gospels," not with his film, he was staking a claim to authenticity: My Jesus is the real one, not yours.
But it's not just Mel. Everyone claims their Jesus is the "real" one, the only authentic Christ unperverted by secular society or religious institutions. The best-selling fiction book The Da Vinci Code, which posits among other things that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, styles itself as a fact-based account of the "real" Jesus, who has been covered up by a Vatican conspiracy. Academics who seek evidence for the Jesus of history attempt to peel away layers of the Gospel narratives until the genuine Jewish prophet is revealed. Nowadays, even nonbelievers assert a superior understanding of who the actual Jesus really was and what he stood for.
Why can everyone from atheists to Zoroastrians lay claim to knowledge of the real Jesus? Because there are so many of him. The New Testament itself presents multiple Jesuses, not just among the four competing Gospel accounts but within each Gospel as well: Baby Jesus, Teacher Jesus, Miracle Worker Jesus, to name only three. Just over the course of this coming weekend, Christians will move from honoring one Jesus, the suffering and dying Jesus of Good Friday, to revering another one, the Risen Lord of Easter Sunday. The old theological conundrum has a new twist: How many Jesuses can dance on the head of a pin?
The most popular Jesus of the moment may be the Manly Messiah,a macho savior unbowed by pain or torment. The logo of the Lord's Gym franchises may be the best example: A ripped, muscular Jesus does push-ups while carrying a cross emblazoned with the phrase "the sins of the world" across his back. You get the feeling that bearing the cross is akin to a soldier dropping and giving 20—it's unpleasant but not all that burdensome. This Jesus wouldn't fall three times on the road to Golgotha, and he certainly wouldn't need Simon of Cyrene to help carry the cross.
The Manly Messiah is a man of action, not wordy parables, so the New Testament incident of choice for his partisans is the overturning of the moneychangers' tables in the Temple. A close cousin of the Manly Messiah is the Apocalyptic Jesus of Revelation, what the New York Times on Palm Sunday called the "Warrior Jesus."
In ThePassion, Gibson creates still another manly Jesus. By merging the suffering, human Jesus of the Stations of the Cross with a more macho conception of Christ, he's given birth to Rocky Jesus.
Rocky Jesus displays his manliness by enduring unimaginable pain. After taking a fist in the eye early in the film, James Caviezel spends the next two hours looking very much like the Italian Stallion at the end of his bruising matches with Apollo Creed. (Rocky Jesus differs markedly from another boxing Jesus, the unblemished champion Jesus of the painting Undefeated.) Later, after being brutally lashed during the scourging, Gibson's Jesus gathers his strength, pulls himself off the floor, and stands, defiant. He's quickly thrashed into submission again, but the message is clear: Jesus is beaten but not broken. He went the distance. Yo, Mary, I did it.
In his recent book American Jesus, Stephen Prothero shows how early 20th-century proponents of a masculine Jesus were reacting to the feminine, Queer Eye for the Christ Guy portraits of Jesus that were popular in the 19th century. Prothero points to the absurdly womanish, wide-hipped Jesus of El Señor, Andando Sobre el Mar (Christ Walking on the Sea) as perhaps the best example. In the 21st century, feminine Jesus lives on as the ultimate sensitive man. South Park mocks this Jesus: Its Christ hosts a Donahue-style talk show called Jesus and Pals.
This is Blue-State Jesus, a pacifist Democrat who drives a hybrid vehicle while advising people to cheerfully render their taxes unto Caesar. Blue-State Jesus is an antiauthoritarian hippie who judges not lest he be judged. ("Following a set of rules doesn't make us the Father's children," grooved one 1960s San Francisco Bay Area group cited by Prothero. "It's digging on the relationship with Him.") A few years back, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a Blue-State Jesus campaign when they tried to convince Americans that the Lamb of God didn't eat meat. Blue-State Jesus might be black or gay. He dislikes organized religion. He's more economic radical than sexual conservative. Sure, he opposed divorce and adultery, but didn't he save an adulteress from a stoning? Blue-State Jesus was the driving force behind abolitionism and the civil rights movement but not the pro-life or temperance movements. Heck, he's Party Jesus—he turns water into wine just to keep the night rockin'.
Which of these Jesuses—and the countless others that exist—is the real Jesus? In a sense, they all are. The emergence of Jesus as a computer programmer in The Matrix shows how he can be reinvented for any age, even the future. But in another sense, none of them is the real Jesus. He remains a mystery.
Scholars have sought out the Historical Jesus in an effort to solve the riddle. The consensus is that he was a Jew who lived between 4 B.C. and A.D. 30, that he thought the end of the world was at hand, that he was considered a healer and miracle worker ("of a sort well known in Judaism," E.P. Sanders wrote in the New York Review of Books), that he used parables to teach about God and ethics, that Pontius Pilate ordered him crucified, and that his followers believed he rose from the dead. But historians can't answer the most pressing question: Was he the Son of God?
The Historical Jesus wasn't the Jesus who inspired Paul, the salesman of the new religion of Christianity, who never met Jesus of Nazareth. On the road to Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus, the so-called Living Jesus, the Christ of faith. That's the Jesus that most Christians seek to know and to understand.