Jesus 1890’s Style

Posted: November 16, 2012 by Ty in Spirituality
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Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Over 2000 years ago a peasant labourer was literally born in a barn to a family of simple means. This unknown baby would become a transformer of world history. His teachings used to shape non-violent change, be used as a thrust for missions, medical care, prayer, healings, social safety nets, human rights, and many other blessings within his name. This young babe’s name would also be used to perpetrate atrocities the likes of never seen in human history from the inquisition, residential schools, holocausts, wars, famines, and many more.

An important yet divisive figure for many, seen by some as the Son of God, by others as a holy teacher, and others simply as a revolutionary yet at the core is a simple man named Yeshua Bar Josephson, or Latinized, Jesus son of Joseph, better known to the world as Jesus Christ. The Messiah that emerged for a remnant out of Judaism, challenged the religious and imperial authorities of his time, and lost his life for it, buried in a mass grave… or so one take on the story goes, another speaks of a man who escaped death and lived out his life married and raising children, and yet another speaks of God become flesh to die and rise to reconcile the world to God. A Cosmic meta-narrative that takes use from creation, to birth, to life—teachings, miracles–, death, burial, resurrection and ascension to sit at the right hand of God. For as many people in the world there at times can appear to be as many theories about this labourer-rabbi.

In 1890 Frederick Farrar attempted to tell the story in The Life of Christ where he attempts to place Jesus theologically within the belief system of the church, and historically within the cultural context of early 1st century Israel.


Farrar opens his work taking the reader through a history of the church upon the spot of the nativity story. Placing the birth of Jesus physically and theologically for the reader and from that entering into the biblical text showing that the Nativity is a piece of the infancy narratives that include:

(Farrar, p.4).


Farrar holds close to the Luke and Matthew gospel versions disparaging the Pseudopigraphal writings of Jesus early life as tasteless (p.15). It is after the infancy narratives that Farrar lays out why Jesus had to be born into a labouring class family, and not say the Herod clan, for this is where a Protestant of the 19th century comes alive in pointing out that Jesus was showing labour as a noble and pure thing even if society tries to label it inferior work (Farrar, p.18). Even if the extra-biblical writings do not hold water with Farrar, he does allude that the death of innocents that caused the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family may not have been just a Herod thing, but rather an Empire wide cleansing (Farrar p.21).

Jesus role of elder son, soon became head of household, with Joseph’s passing when Jesus was just 19 (Farrar p.21) which left Mary (mother), and siblings: (a) James; (b) Joses; (c) Judas; (d) Simon; and (e) unnamed sisters within his care. This shaping of understanding living through stigma leads into Jesus’ life of ministry approximately around age 30.

After his baptism, he is taken into the wilderness to be tempted. Farrar does not waste space debating literal/allegorical interpretation of the text, rather he allows each believer to come to the text as God wills them to (p.26). The point of the text is the powerful experience when one is tempted to separate from God (Farrar, p. 26).

Farrar breathes life into the cleansing of the Temple, by placing it within the historical context of the practice. Aside from what is in the bible, what was attached to the court yard practices was the fact that they had begun to mirror similar practices within the Temple of Venus (Farrar, p. 40). While many exegetes would spend time debating the Evangelists timelines of the gospels, Farrar points out accurately it is the articulation of the truth to the audience that matters, and not the timeline (p.49). Whether it was the cleansing of the Temple (once or twice?) or the Sermon on the Mount or Plain? What needs to be remembered is the audience presented for, the context of the writer and the hearer and how best the truth of the living Christ would be communicated.

This truth ideal is continued by Farrar as he points to the fact that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is the completion of the Torah (p.55) and that the miracles of Jesus where the confirmation needed for the authority he taught with (p.57). It is through this authority that Jesus is able to cut through to the true spirit of the Law—Mercy (Farrar, p. 58).

Farrar’s strength lies in his ability to tie the biblical predecessors to one another, and the future saints to come. Whether it is alluding to Herod and Xerxes (p.83), or the apostles to the Saints afterwards it allows for the reader to find modern and ancient contexts of understanding.


The interpretation of a work is the time when one is to spend time arguing/debating points as presented. The challenge with Farrar’s work even though it is from 122 years in the past, is that it could easily be seen as a work of an “emergent” theologian today. However, even though he may fall within the more conservative emergent camp like the McLaren’s and Pagett’s, he still falls short of truly post-Christendom writers of Spong and Fox.

Farrar falls short not because of not being broad based enough in building his tent for the church. As was seen when he points out that it is not about arguing for one interpretation over another of the temptation story (p.26), but coming to what is truly needed to be known from the experience, which is that it was powerful and important. A story that will illustrate what Christ overcame, but also as a believer we can expect to be able to relate our own life experiences to these challenges. Time when we see how easy things will be by cutting corners, choosing the easy fix, the unethical, using our gifts to glorify and uplift ourselves and NOT doing life to glorify our loving creator.

What can be missed by Farrar however is his setting aside of the reach mythology found within the Pseudopigrapha (extra-biblical texts). As was the tradition in the ancient world, to fill in the missing pieces of Christ’s life, pre-birth (Infancy Gospel of James that shows the immaculate conception of Mary); to the Gospel of Thomas which is a collection of sayings of Jesus; or child stories of Jesus that may or may not be within Christ’s character.

The challenge is that one needs the full historical context on why these texts were kept out of the canon of the Bible. That is a challenge because there is a history within the church. One that is littered with types of Christianity that failed to make the cut. The rise of the Apostolic church had many varieties labelled as heresy (making a definitive choice), there texts destroyed, and in some cases especially after the religion became acceptable within the Roman Empire, their lives if they would not accept what was told to be the orthodox faith.

So does this mean that all the extra-biblical texts are un-Christian? No. It means that they need to be viewed within the biblical hermeneutic to see if they fit what we know of God, and of the character of Jesus of Nazareth. The character of a Son of God, that is not only fully divine, but fully human. Farrar argues that because the stories show Jesus as a rather snot, and in some cases after being bullied, a killer and then a resurrection, that this cannot possibly God’s son and as such, these texts are tasteless.

But are they? Or is it simply the writings of a group of people in time trying to truly understand what it must have been like for this child to grow up.  Are these texts really any different from the multiple writers today of allegory, or of historical biblical fiction? One truly has to go no further for fill in the gap narratives that Anne Rice’s two novel upon the boy Christ to realize that within a discipling faith, these stories although fiction can aid in drawing closer to a truly Living Christ.

Just as historical church tradition from the early learned fathers shaped orthodoxy and understanding ala Joseph dying when Jesus was 19 years of age so too do the extra-biblical stories shape some stories, that then as like with the temptation story can be left to each believer to discern how they wish to view them. Once that discernment in the spirit has happened then each believer can choose whether or not their faith will be informed by these extra-stories or not.

The slight exploration of an alternative view point on the slaughter of innocents was intriguing for the reader, as it removes the anti-Semitic sting of the Herod narrative within the Gospel of Matthew. As the Gospel narrative alludes it was Herod’s paranoia at the birth of a king to rival him that led to the order of the killing of all the male children under 2 years of age. However could this have actually been an empire wide decimation of children? And if so, what would be the underlying reason for this supposition? Is it broadening the scope of the Jesus story from a labourer to somebody whose birth shook an Emperor, but knowing the layout of the Roman Empire and the constant cut throat ways to get ahead if there was an Empire wide genocide of male children it was more likely used as a fear tactic to keep enemies of a whole in check, much like Stalin’s purges in Soviet Russia.

As noted earlier, Farrar is a wordsmith that illuminates the life of Jesus in an accessible way for the new and seasoned believer alike. It lends itself to the understanding of allegory, but also historicity, cultural context and a reading of the literature in time and space. There is a minor divergent viewpoint in some areas for this writer, but not any that would keep one away from reading it. Although what may keep a modern reader away is simply the age of the text as 120 years from date of publication to date of reading can seem a long time.

The timelessness of Farrar’s writing allows for the reader to traverse this gap in time, and to be able to enter into the timeless Gospel world of Christ Jesus. This ability is one that many modern writers could learn from as they seek to open up the life and world of Jesus to the modern believer within a post-Christian Canadian context.


Holy human, holy divine is one of the hardest truths within the Christian faith to understand. But this doctrine was not crafted in a vacuum it came out of a devout understanding the core Gospel stories, tradition, coupled with experience and reason (the four legged stool of faith) for the early Church.

The challenge for the believer today is to learn the life of Jesus, this is the true cosmic story become local. From birth, to childhood, to ministry where his teachings with authority were proved by his miracles, to his execution, burial, resurrection and ascension to show the love for humanity that God has since before creation.

This love became flesh, in Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader at the least, at most the Saviour of Creation. Divisive where His name has been used to commit some of the greatest atrocities in human history, but on the flip side of the same coin his name has been used to inspire the greatest miracles in human history as well.

In 1890 Frederick Farrar attempted to tell the story in The Life of Christ where he attempts to place Jesus theologically within the belief system of the church, and historically within the cultural context of early 1st century Israel. Farrar not only accomplished this feat, but managed to connect the Life of Christ through the history of the communion of Saints from Christ’s ascension to his own writing in 1890.















Farrar, F. (1890) The Life of Christ retrieved from on 4 November 2012.














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