Opinion: On Easter, Jesus' Evolution Tells of Changing America

Jesus has been born and born again over the course of American history.

Jeff Fenholt (standing) played the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway in 1971.

Every year, in the Christian calendar, Jesus is born (on Christmas), dies (on Good Friday), and rises from the dead (on Easter). But the popular persona of Jesus has also been born and born again over the course of American history.

His latest incarnation is Jesus the Husband, attested to on a papyrus fragment unearthed in 2012 by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King. The papyrus—whose writer is unknown—seems to suggest that Jesus was married, or that some early Christians thought he was. One section of it reads, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" Another section reads, "she will be able to be my disciple." (See "No Forgery Evidence Seen in 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife' Papyrus.")

According to the most recent issue of the Harvard Theological Review, professors at Columbia, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe this so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife fragment dates back to ancient times. But the Vatican declared it a fake in 2012, and in a dissent also published in the Harvard Theological Review, Brown University Egyptologist Leo Depuydt declared himself "100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery."

As a historian of American religion, I do not specialize in the historical Jesus. So I will not wade into the murky waters swirling around this "probably genuine" or "certainly fake" document.

I am more interested in placing this debate within the broader American story of Jesus' many and malleable afterlives. In just the past few weeks, this American Jesus has not only escorted "Mrs. Jesus" to Harvard Divinity School. He also has appeared as a hunk in The Son of God movie, and ridden on a rainbow-colored horse in Heaven Is for Real, a movie about the near-death experience of a pious four-year-old boy.

Variations From Gospel to Gospel

According to the Nicene Creed of the Christian churches, Jesus is supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. However, biblical scholars have long observed that depictions of Jesus vary from Gospel to Gospel.

In the Book of Luke, for example, Jesus is friendly to women and the poor, while in the Book of John, Jesus seems less concerned about social and economic realities than about conveying eternal wisdom. In Mark, Jesus gets four different answers when he asks, "Who do you say that I am?"

In the American imagination, Jesus has been even more chameleonic. Here he has been black and white, male and female, straight and gay. He has been a socialist and a CEO, a pacifist and a warrior, a civil rights agitator and a Ku Klux Klansman, depending on who claims to define him.

During the heyday of the sentimental novel in Victorian America, Jesus got in touch with his feminine side, playing the role of the sentimental Savior.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, as Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and Frederic Remington crafted popular woodcuts of football players, cowboys, and Indians, Jesus flexed his muscles and carried a big stick. Instead of being depicted alongside women and children, he was shown swinging a hammer in his carpenter's shop or driving the moneychangers from the Temple in Jerusalem.

From Salesman to Hippie

During the go-go economy of the 1920s, ad-man Bruce Barton presented  Jesus as the greatest salesman the world has ever known, in his book The Man Nobody Knows. ("Knowest ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" read this best seller's epigraph.)

In the early 1940s, artist Warner Sallman created "Head of Christ," an impossibly lit and curiously androgynous Jesus that would go on to become one of the most widely distributed images in world history, reproduced (according to its publishers) more than 500 million times.

The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to a hippie Jesus, audible in the Christian rock of the "Jesus people" and visible on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. In the aftermath of 9/11, Jesus was terrorized in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, where his scourging (which takes up just a few words in the Gospels) never seems to end in what is certainly the most gruesome Bible movie ever made.

But a funny thing happened as Jesus was transformed from an abstract theological principle into an American celebrity: The Christians who praised and preached him lost control of their central symbol. Over the course of U.S. history, Jesus has been lauded not only by Christians but also by Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists.

Yet Thomas Jefferson, who managed to find time during his sojourn in the White House to produce two versions of the cut-and-paste scripture now referred to as the Jefferson Bible, was no friend of organized Christianity.

In fact, during the election of 1800 (one of the most bitter campaigns in U.S. political history), Jefferson was widely denounced as an infidel (and, by some, as a secret Muslim). But he praised Jesus as a great moral teacher–an "enlightened sage"–and cited him in his crusade against theological orthodoxy. There is a difference between Jesus and organized Christianity, he argued, before quoting the former to denounce the latter.

Claimed by Many Faiths, Factions

Since Jefferson's time, a holy host of Americans have made a similar move, arguing that the last place Jesus would be seen today would be in an American Christian church.

In the 19th century, rabbis argued that Jesus was a Jew whose spirituality was hijacked by the Christian church. In the 20th century, Hindus and Buddhists made similar arguments, casting Jesus as an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu or as a bodhisattva of compassion.

All this is to say that Jesus isn't just for Christians anymore. His success in America's spiritual marketplace has transformed him into an American icon who refuses to be contained inside any Christian denomination, or even inside the confines of Christianity itself.

Jesus appears regularly on magazine covers. His life is the subject of Hollywood movies, television miniseries, and more books in the Library of Congress than have been written about any other person. His image appears not only on stained-glass windows in churches but also on billboards, T-shirts, and tattooed bodies. Jesus may or may not be God, but he is certainly an American hero.

Unfortunately, on his road to fame and fortune, Jesus seems to have lost most of his prophetic power. Yes, Jesus was employed by abolitionists to put an end to slavery and by civil rights activists to put an end to segregation. But over the long haul of U.S. history, Jesus has rarely ordered us around. Rather than being a shaper of American history, Jesus seems to have been shaped by it, buffeted about by the preoccupations of the Puritans, the winds of the Enlightenment, the acids of modernity, and the not-so-biblical logic of advertising.

Nowadays marriage is the great sacrament of the Christian church, and the family the preoccupation of our cultural politics. In an era when the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are rising and attendance at Holy Communion is stagnant at best, marriage remains a prize defended by traditionalists and demanded by same-sex couples who want to have families of their own. So it should not be surprising that Jesus now walks among us with a wife.

Stephen Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books, most recently The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.