I’m reading a really interesting volume right now called Alternative Christs, edited by Olav Hammer. It’s a collection of short essays on a wide variety of reinventions of Jesus outside mainstream Christianity (i.e., figures like Augustine are ignored while there is a whole chapter on the Manicheans). It’s well-written and informative, but it’s the introduction that’s been incredible so far. I love the opening sentences:
Few if any individuals have had such a profound influence on Western culture as Jesus. Or rather, few if any cultural icons have had a comparable importance.
This is a subtle difference, but an important one: we don’t know if Jesus has had an influence on the western world, because we don’t even know what he said, but we do know that the iconic figure of Jesus has been important. An icon can be important without the figure actually having been influential. I doubt Jesus’ mother has had any real influence on western world, but it’s clear that her icon has been important!
What’s important for the editor of this volume is not so much Jesus himself as the “more general process of religious innovation.” He thinks of culture as:
a profuse repertoire of discourses and practices, that is, what other authors have called a “tool kit” …. The repertoire metaphor is helpful both in describing synchronic variation and change over time. Synchronic variation … is part of any complex society that encompasses people with different levels of expertise, different received traditions, local variations, various social strata and various pragmatic interests. In the specific domain of religion, agents with different competences and interests can pick and choose different elements from the repertoire.
Diachronic change arises because religions, like “cultures” more broadly, have no essential components that are inherently stable over time: old doctrines are replaced by new ones, existing rituals die out in favor of ritual innovations, and organizational structures are transformed. Innovations arise when the selection of religious elements from the repertoire changes, when existing elements are discarded or new elements are introduced.
The figure of Jesus is just one element of the Christian “tool kit,” and is subject to both synchronic and diachronic variation in just the way Hammer describes.
I’m looking forward to his conclusion.