A Non-Historical Question about Jesus of Nazareth



Peter Kreeft recently presented an essay on the theme that, in his claim to be God, the historical Jesus of Nazareth could not have been wrong and still been a good man. If not God, he would have had to have been a liar, a lunatic, a guru believing in some form of universal divinity, or a non-historical person, a legend.

The claim of the Catholic Church is that she is the mystical body of Christ, whose living head is Jesus of Nazareth. The identification of the Catholic Church as the person of Jesus is the very question of being a Catholic. This was true form the beginning of the Church. It was the essence of Saul’s conversion into St. Paul. “’Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?’ Saul said, ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply, ‘I am Jesus . . .’” (Acts 9:4-5).

The question, ‘What is it: this, that or the other,’ when addressed to the Catholic Church, is directed to that person whose existence the questioner has experienced, here and now. It is not a question of history.

If the Catholic Church is not the mystical body of the Divine Person it claims to be, it must be a lying charlatan, delusional, a religion of pantheistic mysticism or the propagator of a legend.

It claims not to be the propagator of a legend. If it were in fact the propagator of legend, it would be a charlatan or delusional.

Similarly, it could not be the peddler of some form of mysticism, because it is in no sense gnostic or even elitist. It professes no hidden beliefs or beliefs beyond the comprehension of common human intelligence. It has no secret passwords, no secret codes, no secret initiations, no secret knowledge for the privileged few. The Church openly presents its entire teaching to all.

The Church is egalitarian in teaching and action. No Catholic is exalted above another, “For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:27). That is not to say, though, that as Catholics we always behave that way.

How can the Church be a charlatan when it hides none of its teachings from anyone and claims no power over anything material? A charlatan is a deceiver, who hides the truth. A charlatan may purport to have power over immaterial things, while selling that power for material gain. However, the Church declares simony a sin.

A charlatan purports to have power over material things by seemingly performing wonders apparent to the senses. The Church proposes no apparent miracles to be witnessed as grounds for belief in the Church. The Catholic Church permits belief by an individual Catholic in present day miracles, but in no way requires such belief.

With respect to material miracles, it is the other way round. It is the acceptance of the Catholic Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, which leads one to accept, as a material miracle, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Yet, in transubstantiation there is no hint to our senses that it is a miracle.

A Catholic does accept the miracles of healing by Christ during his life on earth, as well as his resurrection from the dead. However, these are not acknowledged as miracles leading to faith in the Church. Rather they are accepted as miracles consequent upon faith in the testimony of the Church as being the mystical body of Christ.

The miracles of the gospel cannot serve as grounds of faith for us because we are not witnesses of them. If we accept them as miracles based on an historical argument, our acceptance would be based on human testimony, not based on the miracles, themselves.

That leaves the question of lunacy or self-delusion. Is the Church, in teaching the faith, self-delusional? Self-delusion is irrational. It is characteristically inconsistent in itself and with the material world. The Faith, however, is self-consistent and consistent with material reality. The Mass, which is focused on transubstantiation, embodies the worship and the central dogma of the Catholic Church, the Incarnation. If anything in the faith were self-delusional, it would be the dogma of transubstantiation.

As Kevin Aldrich has recently noted, the action message of the Catholic Church is self-giving in imitation of the self-giving of the persons of the Blessed Trinity and of the self-giving of God incarnate on behalf of mankind, most obviously in the sacrifice of the cross. This is all bound up in the Mass, the sacrifice of the cross in unbloody form (CCC 1367).

The concept of the Mass is our union with Jesus in his giving of himself to the Father. Self-giving, as a central, obvious fact of all life, can be seen in our concept of heroism. The hero intentionally risks, if not gives, his life for others. Even the beasts reflect this self-giving at the center of all life in the mother cat’s risking her life in instinctively saving her kittens from the burning barn.

But, is transubstantiation consistent with material reality? We know the nature of things through the composite phantasm composed by our senses. We do not know the natures of things directly, but through their material properties.

It would not be a self-contradiction for a substance to support the material properties typical of something else, because a substance does not consist in its properties. This, of course, depends upon the distinction in the perennial philosophy, originating with Aristotle, of substance and accident.

The substance is what a thing is. Its accidents are the proper material expressions of its substance, as perceived by the senses, but not the substance itself. If a substance consisted in the sum of its properties, a change in any property, such as growing longer hair, would result in a change in substance.

Philosophy cannot verify transubstantiation. It can merely affirm that it is not self-contradictory. The Catholic Church in its self-consistency and in its consistency with human knowledge contiguous to its teaching, is neither self-delusional nor a charlatan.

Do other philosophies distinguish between a substance and its material properties?

Perhaps the most drastic denial of the distinction, nay the denial of substance, is the philosophy of Heraclitus (ca 500 BC) that change is the only reality. At nearly the opposite extreme is the philosophy of Richard Dawkins. Though he doesn’t use the terminology, Dawkins’ philosophy is that all living things are of the same substance. They differ, not in substance, that which they are. Rather they differ merely in the material properties which they exhibit.

“If a time machine could serve up to you your 200 million greats grandfather, you would eat him with sauce tartare and a slice of lemon. He was a fish. Yet you are connected to him by an unbroken line of intermediate ancestors, every one of whom belonged to the same species as its parents and its children

Humans are clearly separable from chimpanzees and pigs and fish and lemons only because the intermediates that would otherwise link them in interbreeding chains happen to be extinct. This is not to deny that we are different from other species. We certainly are different and the differences are important – important enough to justify eating them (vegetables are our cousins too). But it is a reason for scepticism of any philosophy or theology (or morality or jurisprudence or politics) that treats humanness, or personhood, as some kind of essentialist absolute, which you either definitely have or definitely don’t have.” (Richard Dawkins, \”The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind\”)

If what is true of animate things in Dawkins’ philosophy were true of inanimate things, then all bread, wine, flesh and blood would differ from each other only in material properties and not in any substantial form. Of course, Dawkins’ philosophy is a far cry from the perennial philosophy underpinning transubstantiation, but it does make the distinction between substance — what a thing is — and the set of material properties, which it happens to support. It is this distinction which is fundamental to transubstantiation.

According to Dawkins’ philosophy, any two living things differ only as they appear to the senses by way of the set of material properties each happens to support, not by differing in substance from each other. According to the perennial philosophy, a thing is known in its substance by the set of material properties it supports, which properties are characteristic of its substance. However, since its substance does not consist in the sum of those properties, it would not be a self-contradiction for a substance to support material properties other than those naturally characteristic of it.

In Aristotelian philosophy, fingerprints are characteristic of the substance, man, and not of the substance, pig, or the substance, lemon. Particular fingerprints are characteristic of an individual whose substance is man.

In Dawkins’ philosophy, except for assimilation and reproduction, the distinguishing material properties among a man, a pig and a lemon are characteristics of an individual, but not those of a substance. Each such individual is of the substance, living thing, whose substantial properties are assimilation and reproduction.

It is remarkable that such an extreme philosophy as that of Dawkins, has not abandoned the distinction between substance and accident, which is fundamental to the integrity of transubstantiation.

The Catholic Church, which is known to us today, is not a lying charlatan. It is not delusional, a religion of pantheistic mysticism or the propagator of a legend. It could very well be what it claims to be: the mystical body of the Divine Person, Jesus of Nazareth. Like St. Paul, we believe it is.

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9 thoughts on “A Non-Historical Question about Jesus of Nazareth”

  1. Please give us a clarification of your reference to mysticism. How can you have the Mystical Body of Christ without mysticism? From my readings of the Catholic mystical literature, Contemplative Prayer is neither gnostic nor elitist, but is a universal calling to all of the faithful. This is stated repeatedly in “Fire Within” by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. St. John of the Cross is very clear in advising that contemplatives need to seek out competent spiritual direction. St. Teresa of Avila made great contributions to the analysis of the mystical life. All the Mystical Doctors of the Church are firmly rooted in the Church teachings.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to correct what I wrote. I should have written: Similarly it could not be the peddler of some form of pantheistic or New Age mysticism, because in its holiness it is in no sense gnostic or even elitist, witness “The Story of a Soul” by St. Therese.

      When Peter Kreeft wrote that it is utterly unhistorical to see Jesus as
      a mystic, the meaning was clear from his context. Not so with what I wrote.

    2. Thank you for your reply. I got to thinking and there is one form of prayer that gets mixed in with contemplation called centering prayer that appears to have New Age overtones. Some of what I’ve read about it does concern me.

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  5. I have thought for a long time that the parallel of the “Either God or a bad man” argument for the Catholic Church was obvious because of the extreme claims the Church makes for Herself.

    As for what you say about Dawkins, don’t be fooled. He does not believe in substance at all. If he had extended his argument just a bit more, he would have said that the first life descended from non-living but interesting chemistry, which in turn descended from non-living but prosaic chemistry. In the end, everything without distinction is of the same substance as everything else, or, what amounts to the same thing, nothing has real substance. He must believe this both because of the evolutionary argument just made and also because science can only observe the accidents, not the substances, and he has a hard time believing in anything science cannot observe.

    1. I agree that Dawkins doesn’t overtly believe in substances vs. accidents and would extend the lack of distinction in kind to the inanimate as well. However, I thought it fascinating that he does perceive the concept of substance implicitly in his identifying pigs, fish and lemons as not differing in kind.

  6. All over the world, Jesus is healing people today, just as he did in his physical life on earth. For Jesus to heal there must be belief that he always desires to heal and cure, as the bible tells us. Little faith means little healing. The healings that Jesus does today bring many people to faith in him, just as they did when Jesus was a man on the earth and the bible recorded the people believing because of the healing touch of Jesus.

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