Friday, 14 April 2017

Jesus: the most significant person in history?

In 2013 computer scientist Steven Skiena and the Google engineer Charles Ward published Who's Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank. The book ranks historical figures in order of significance.

Skiena and Ward compared all English language Wikipedia articles against five criteria. The idea was that to measure the current fame of each subject. The results were then modified to compensate for a skewing of data toward more recent subjects, arriving at true likely historical significance.

The aim was to be purely quantitative. This sounds admirable but could it be verified? The writers compared their results to various other rankings and do a good job of showing that their more dispassionate approach has advantages. 

The main limitation is that results are skewed towards the English-writing world.

So, who comes out on top? 

Remember, 'significance' is not the same as 'admirable' – or even ‘great’. The top five entries on the list are:
  • Jesus,
  • Napoleon,
  • Mohammed,
  • William Shakespeare, and
  • Abraham Lincoln.


Many of these same five turn up in other lists as well.

Passover / Easter season is a good time to consider the significance of the person at the top of the list: Jesus of Nazareth.

More books have been written about Jesus than anyone else in history. 184 are listed on goodreads Listopia ‘Books about Jesus. But this list is really only currently available books. 

Hundreds more have been written over the centuries. Is it possible that there is now nothing more to say on the subject? I doubt it.

Every generation will reinterpret any historical figure, and this is more so for a person whose name evokes controversy. Each age has its own special interests and 'lenses' through which sees the past. New events will also often colour a reassessment of the past. 

So – the past is here to stay.

Skiena and Ward point out that Jesus is the only person for whom they have no birth and death date. 

We may never have these questions settled for sure but it is always possible that new archaeological and historical research will have more to say on the subject.

Most people now accept that Jesus could not have been born on 25 December in any year. For one thing, no wise shepherd would be outside in the winter's cold and for another the date was chosen centuries after the event. 

There are a couple of plausible theories on Jesus actual birth date, late September seeming most likely.

As for his death, commemorated at this time of year, there are apparently good reasons for believing that it was a Thursday, some even postulate a Wednesday. The year of his death seems to be either 33 or 30. At the moment 4 April 30 AD looks most plausible.

Dr James D. Tabor has a series of posts that look at the week leading up to Jesus death, touching on many of the mysteries this convergence of Jewish and Christian traditions and memories of Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem have stirred. 

Dr Tabor was Professor of ancient Judaism and early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, where he has taught since 1989. His work on early Christianity has been a life-long passion and he offers a number of fresh and thoughtful perspectives.

Three of his six books are relevant to the topic; The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (2006); The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (with Simcha Jacobovici) (2012), and most recently Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (2012).

Interestingly, Tabor himself doesn’t rank Jesus as the most significant person in western history.

Who is his nomination? Paul. Because it was Paul who ‘invented’ Jesus as we tend to know him today. 

Skiena and Ward rank Paul as the 34th most significant person in history – still pretty important of course.

In Christianity Before Paul Tabor points out that Paul never met Jesus. It was not until seven years after Jesus’ death, that Paul reports his vision of ‘Christ’ whom he identifies with Jesus raised from the dead.

It was another three years later that Paul met the apostles Peter and James then leader of the ‘Jesus movement’. Paul operated independently of the original apostles, teaching his ‘Gospel’, in Turkey for another 10 years before making a return trip to Jerusalem around 50 AD.

As the result of Paul, it was the way Jesus came into the world, and how he left — Christmas and Easter — that came to re-define Christianity.

For James, Jesus brother, the Christian message was not the person of Jesus but the message that Jesus proclaimed. What is preserved in the Book of James is a reflection of the original apocalyptic proclamation of Jesus: the ‘Gospel of the kingdom of God’ with its political and social implications.


Model of the Jerusalem Temple complex at the time of Jesus and Paul